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No more pretending

April 09, 2006

ALTHOUGH THE TALE OF "The Little Prince" is sweet enough to cause a toothache, it contains one sly anecdote about a king who claims he can command the sun and planets. Asked to produce a sunset, he readily agrees. Just wait until dusk, he says, and you'll see how eagerly the sun obeys me.

Just as it's easy to ask the sun to do what it already does and count it an achievement, so it is with public schools. But the idea behind the No Child Left Behind Act was to force public education to improve, not to change the standards by which it is measured so that it merely looks as if it's improving.

Several states, including California, are discussing lowering standards so more schools will pass muster under the federal law. Students would be defined as "proficient" in their studies, as the law requires, even if their skills were marginal. And everyone would count this as a command performance in education, even though the students, just like the sun, won't have changed.

Admittedly, the clumsy tomfoolery written into the No Child Left Behind Act grows more obvious every year. This is especially true of the provision that requires states to bring a certain number of students to proficiency, but leaves it up to the states to define "proficient." Thus the higher a state's standards, the more of its schools "fail."

California is among the states with higher standards. A bill by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) would change that by defining "proficient" as passing the high school exit exam in the student's sophomore year. It would create a domino effect as well; at any grade level, students would be considered proficient if they were on track to pass the test.

That's hardly an accomplishment, considering the test is given in the 10th grade and measures eighth-grade math skills. What's more, a passing score is 55% in math and 60% in English -- usually a failing grade. So a fourth-grader is a year behind in math? No problem. Even if the student falls behind another whole year by the 10th grade, he or she would still be on track to pass the "proficiency" test.

Low academic standards don't just make a mockery of the federal law; they also have the practical effect of removing incentives to try harder. Once children reach this inadequate bar, the pressure would be off.

Hancock makes a good point about the federal law unfairly burdening schools that have high standards. But state schools Supt. Jack O'Connell is negotiating with the federal government for a better solution: measuring schools' success by how much their students improve each year, not whether they can be defined as "proficient."

That's wiser than pretending, like the king, that the state has accomplished something when it hasn't.

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