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School Standards Paradox

September 15, 2002

Math problem: If only 33% of California's schoolchildren meet the state's new learning standards, and the federal government insists the number must reach 100% within 12 years, at what point on the road to achievement will the two figures collide?

Possibly very soon, as state officials feel pressed to lower expectations to avoid undeserved embarrassment.

California forged its high standards after nationwide research but before the federal "No Child Left Behind" law took effect this year, proclaiming that all schoolchildren must be "proficient" at their studies by 2014. Washington left it up to each state to define proficient; by then, the state had set the definition as meaning on track for education at a rigorous four-year university.

The gap between aiming high but needing to look good in Washington exposes a serious flaw in No Child Left Behind, a generally admirable law that increases funding for disadvantaged students but makes schools show they're boosting these children to better skills. It sets annual goals for raising the number of proficient students and, in its first six years, disciplines schools that fall short.

Connecticut, a high-achieving state, has responded to the law by playing a trick with the word "proficient." Connecticut has long had a high standard for academic mastery, which about 60% of its students meet. But its board of education decided to define proficiency as different from mastery, bringing in a lower band of students. Now 80% of its students meet the mark. Ohio has taken similar action; Michigan is considering doing so. California education officials already predict that the state will lower its standards so that fewer schools will fail under the federal act.

President Bush and Congress never meant to make it in a state's interests to lower standards or play word games. In fact, the act uses the lofty standard of the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a measuring stick. But there it is: The lower the definition of proficiency, the less chance a school will be punished. Arkansas and Wyoming have set their bars low enough to report no failing schools; that's no path to educational progress.

Congress will revisit No Child Left Behind in six years, and no doubt rejigger it, but Washington should not wait that long to build more flexibility into the act, taking into account the high expectations some states have set for their students and teachers.

Must educators stop using student poverty and other social ills as an excuse for teenagers unable to read Dr. Seuss? Absolutely. California gets that message and has set its standards high, for both students and teachers. The federal government cannot on one hand demand high achievement and on the other hand reward states that set a low academic bar. If it's a game we're playing, California can follow the lead of other states and reset expectations so low that any school can meet them--or California can be recognized as having the most varied and diverse student body in the nation and get federal points for steadily moving its schools toward true excellence.

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