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Education Standards Threatened

Reform: U.S. law setting proficiency levels may force California and other states to lower their goals or face the loss of billions of dollars.


The nation's new education law that promises to "leave no child behind" may force California and several other states to lower their academic standards for public schools or risk billions in federal funds.

The quandary stems from the federal law requiring that 100% of students in all states be proficient in English and math within 12 years.

Before the law was passed, California set a high bar for proficiency, demanding that students learn everything from Euclidean geometry to medieval literature before they graduate from high school. As it stands, only one-third of the state's students now meet the proficient level.

Though education officials said they don't want to lower the standards, sticking to them probably means falling short of federal goals--and perhaps down the line, losing federal dollars.

"The federal government has put us in a bind," said Kerry Mazzoni, California's secretary of education. "We're never going to be able to meet the 100% mark."

The federal law leaves the details of testing and accountability to the 50 states: Each must establish its own academic standards, define what it means by proficiency on tests and ensure that students make what it considers adequate academic progress annually.

California began setting its standards four years ago, and through tests each spring determines whether students are proficient for their grade level. The state aimed high, requiring that proficient fourth-graders be able to identify metaphors and similes in literary works and that eighth-graders master algebra.

Ultimately, California students who are proficient in English and math when they graduate from high school are considered ready to attend a four-year university.

States that aim lower have a better chance of satisfying federal requirements. And, like California, states that set demanding standards before the law was enacted--including Michigan, Rhode Island and Colorado--are scrambling for solutions to satisfy Washington.

Education policymakers in California and elsewhere said lowering their standards would undermine credibility in their school accountability systems.

"Every state that is trying to [respond to Washington] in reasonably good faith is going to say, 'Why do I feel like I've just been set up?' " said Peter McWalters, commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Some state officials and education experts said that is the latest example of how the federal law doesn't take into account the realities of public education, especially in urban districts. For example, students in failing schools are supposed to be able to transfer to other campuses, but often there is no space available. And all teachers are supposed to be "highly qualified" within four years, but some districts have trouble filling their worst schools with anyone other than rookies.

McWalters and several state education chiefs said they applaud Congress for its ambitious goal of 100% proficiency. Still, as the Rhode Island education commissioner asks, "Is it doable?"

The Bush administration has answered yes--with the right effort.

Federal officials said the "No Child Left Behind" law should inspire educators to reexamine everything from how they spend money to what they teach.

Ultimately, the officials said, the law aims to close the achievement gap that separates higher performing whites and Asians from their African American and Latino peers. That problem has persisted despite the federal government's pumping more than $100 billion into schools serving the most disadvantaged children since the mid-1960s.

"The status quo is unacceptable," said Eugene Hickok, undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education. "We need to rethink the way we deliver education in this country. That is the bottom line to this law."

Under the law, schools must make measurable annual progress toward the 100% goal. States also must show steady improvement for each major ethnic group, as well as for low-income students.

Educational researchers who have studied the law said the 100% goal will not be achievable within 12 years, especially in states that have set a high bar for proficiency and those that serve large numbers of English learners and special education students.

These experts said most states have shown only modest progress over the last decade on a separate, rigorous test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"It's not workable," said Robert Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. "It's hard to see how we would suddenly increase [scores] three- or fourfold just because this law has passed."

Schools that fail to improve rapidly enough in the coming years can face state and federal sanctions. Besides risking the loss of federal funds, schools can have their teachers and principals removed and they can be taken over by their states, although such extreme measures are unlikely on a broad scale.

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