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Guess Who's Still Left Behind

By Ross Wiener
Monday, January 2, 2006

This past fall new national data were released on the academic achievement of our young people. In some ways the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation's Report Card, were consistent with other recent performance indicators: There is some progress in math and almost none in reading, and more progress in elementary schools than in middle schools (where reading levels actually have declined since 2003).

This modest progress is disappointing. Despite the intense focus on improving the academic achievement of struggling students since enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, we have to stop and ask why more progress has not been made in narrowing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from their peers.

The results are sobering from at least one other perspective: The knowledge and skills of students of color and those from low-income families are not just low compared with white and more-affluent students. They are also low in absolute terms, shutting these students out from meaningful civic engagement and economic opportunity.

The scores of African American, Latino and low-income fourth-graders indicate that the average student in these groups demonstrates skills below the level required to classify numbers as even or odd. Eighth-grade students from all of these groups on average score far below the level that would indicate an ability to convert written numbers into decimals.

One thing put in stark relief is the low level of state standards. Students who demonstrate proficiency on their own state's tests often perform far below that level on NAEP, suggesting that the states have set standards too low to indicate adequate academic preparation. But the differences are more than a matter of rigor -- they also reflect the quality of the tests we're using. State tests more often assess basic skills, whereas demonstrating proficiency on NAEP requires students to apply knowledge and critical reasoning. If we are going to maintain the fiction that it is acceptable to have different reading standards in Mississippi and Maine, then national policy needs to provide some incentives for states to align their expectations and assessments with the demands of the real world.

The most important lesson from these results, however, is that we are not doing enough to improve teaching and learning in our public schools. There is no question that educators are trying harder to reach students, especially those students who have struggled, but there is a crippling lack of intellectual capital in many of our lowest-performing schools. Instead of confronting this problem, we reward teachers with higher status and higher pay the farther away they get from the students who need the most help. This is true across districts, within districts and even within individual schools, where the most experienced and effective teachers are assigned to the "best" kids.

After the latest NAEP results, the Education Department finally began paying attention to the federal law's focus on teacher quality. Just two days after the national data were released -- after almost four years of the Bush administration neglecting this issue -- Education Secretary Margaret Spellings sent a letter to every state superintendent, ostensibly serving notice that the department was going to ask for more data on teachers and require states to develop plans for ensuring that poor and minority students get their fair share of qualified and experienced teachers. Unfortunately, the letter represents one more broken promise to poor and minority students: States have already been told they do not have to report inequality in access to qualified secondary school teachers, despite the administration's professed interest in high school reform. Moreover, the states are not being asked to publicly release their equity plans as the law requires. This is a shame, because research documents that teachers make a dramatic difference in how much students learn and also that students who need the most academic help get the least in terms of teacher talent. Attention to teacher quality should have been first on the agenda for leaving no child behind -- not an afterthought.

We don't have the luxury of deciding whether we want to take on the heartache and hard work of improving public education. Given the rapidly increasing pressures and demands of the knowledge-based economy, we need to make sure that we take more students to higher levels of achievement. That means pegging standards to the real-world challenges our students will face as adults. But nothing will make up for a lack of commitment to raising teacher quality.

We will forever consign millions of poor and minority children to the margins of society if we do not act now to give them the teachers they need and deserve. The latest test results indicate that we have maintained and even built a little on recent gains but that the heavy lifting in education reform is still in our future.

The writer is policy director for the Education Trust, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

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