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Basic Mastery, Not Miracles

January 18, 2003

Remember the end of "social promotion" in California's schools? The practice still is commonplace in many urban school districts. California instituted a high school exit exam but might back away from implementation because so many students are flunking it. Punishments for schools that do poorly are still in place, but not the ballyhooed cash rewards for improvement on standardized tests. The state can't afford them.

California schools are stumbling beneath the weight of lofty reforms that impose high standards without charting a realistic path for getting there. And the situation just got worse. Last week's decision by the state Board of Education that to be considered "proficient" a student must be on track for a four-year university education sets another unrealistic goal.

Under the new federal No Child Left Behind law, schools that get supplementary federal funding for low-income students must meet rigid annual benchmarks for bringing their students up to proficiency, with 100% of them at that mark within 12 years. The punishments to schools that falter include staff reassignments and funding cuts. The one area where states have wiggle room is in defining "proficient." Before the federal law, California's proficiency standard was among the highest in the nation. The state had a chance to soften that definition for federal purposes but decided not to.

No one wants lower standards, but this is all a word game. The federal law happens to use the word "proficient." It doesn't demand that 100% of students have to be prepared for a four-year college. The projection is that 98% of California schools will flunk the test, including well-run schools. This arbitrary definition of "proficiency" lands at the worst possible time, with the schools already facing across-the-board budget cuts.

Never have public schools prepared 100% of their students to enter a four-year college. Nor is this a necessary goal. At this point, California would thrill employers and parents by getting close to 100% of its students ready for a good life beyond high school. That's the intent behind new Los Angeles school programs that tie vocational aspirations -- say, to be an electrician -- with the math needed to do the job.

Let schools concentrate first on a high school degree that means its holder has mastered the skills and knowledge to be a fruitful citizen and a capable employee. Help all students be ready to tackle community college without remedial help.

This doesn't mean preparing fewer students for higher education. On the contrary. A push toward basic mastery will mean more college-bound students. Succeed with attainable standards and we'll be ready to move on toward sending all students to university. Of course, then the entire state will be searching for a plumber.

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