For those still uncertain why changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — birthed in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act by the Bush administration and, disappointingly, Ted Kennedy — were a bad idea, a recent story in the New York Times provides the answer.
What No Child Left Behind did was allow each state to set its own standards for proficiency in reading and math at fourth and eighth grade. It also set out a timeline (by 2014, with progress benchmarks every year along the way) for states to get 100 percent of students to proficiency in those subjects or face penalties on a continuum from some loss of funding to mandatory reorganization of the underachieving schools. (All the bad teachers would lose their jobs, so that idea sounds pretty cool to some.)
But if you started with a low bar in the first place, then your progress easily looks pretty good and you avoid penalties. Conversely, if you set an honest standard for proficiency on your state test (ours is the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL) then it is harder to make the required progress. The result is that better schools in tougher states and districts are penalized sooner and more severely than weak schools in states with low standards.
Sam Dillon'ês New York Times article reports a study by the federal Department of Education covering 2005 and 2007 data from the National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP), a test that has been given across the country to a representative sample of students in grades 4, 8 and 12 every two years since the early 1970s. Thus it provides a tool for comparing the relative difficulty — or proficiency levels — of different states'ê tests.
The range is shocking. It takes an NAEP score of approximately 230 to be considered proficient in fourth-grade reading in Massachusetts, the state with the toughest test. In Mississippi, which has the lowest standard, educators think they'êve done their jobs if their fourth-graders score only 125 on the same test. The Department of Education mavens say fourth-grade reading proficiency takes a score of 208.
'êWe'êre lying to our children,'ê says Education Secretary Arne Duncan, quoted by Dillon.
We sure are in the 32 states whose standards are lower than the NAEP'ês. And that includes Washington, where fourth-grade readers are deemed proficient at a score just above 200, about the middle of states nationally. Oregon'ês kids are declared proficient at about 185.
How on earth could federal officials ever think it fair to base Title I funding (low-income student enrollment compensation) and even school closures on failure to make progress against such inconsistent standards? The Seattle School District came close to the ultimate sanction against a couple of its schools, but can anyone really think they'êre turning out weaker readers than their counterparts in rural Mississippi?
Under No Child, standards aren'êt really standards, and the variation among states looks like proof that state education bureaucracies often act in their own interests; that's not necessarily in the best interest of the nation'ês kids.
Kids in Washington and Oregon — all states — deserve an education that gets them to a recognized national, even international, standard. The NAEP provides a lot better benchmark than the WASL and its ilk.