Congress to Weigh 'No Child Left Behind'
Saturday, January 13, 2007; 1:07 PM
WASHINGTON -- The No Child Left Behind law was supposed to level the playing field, promising students an equal education no matter where they live or their background. From state to state, however, huge differences remain in what students are expected to know and learn.
Each state sets its own standards for subjects such as reading and math, then tests to see whether students meet those benchmarks. It's a practice under increasing scrutiny as Congress prepares to review the five-year-old law.
"Fourth-grade kids in the District of Columbia are learning different math from kids across the (Potomac) river in Virginia. It's crazy. Math is math," said Michael Petrilli, vice president for policy at the Thomas Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based education reform group.
The solution, say Petrilli and other advocates, means standards of learning that are uniform nationwide.
Republicans generally have opposed national standards. GOP lawmakers say state and local officials know what is best for their students and as the primary funders of elementary and secondary education, should have primary say in running schools.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has opposed national standards but recently indicated she would consider voluntary ones. Spellings said she would have strong reservations, however, about proposals that would free states from the No Child Left Behind law's requirements as a reward for raising standards.
Many Democrats, along with education reform and business groups, say a patchwork of standards is inefficient. They also say students in states with low standards will have trouble competing in the global economy. Many other industrial nations have more stringent standards than those in the U.S.
There are signs states are wrestling with the problem. Some are talking about sharing tests and looking at benchmarks that would identify the skills U.S. students should have when they finish high school.
Advocates of national standards say the No Child Left Behind law is encouraging states to set low standards so schools can avoid consequences that come with missing annual progress goals.
Schools that miss those targets must take steps such as paying for tutoring or overhauling staffs. All students have to be proficient, which generally means working at grade level, in reading and math by 2014.
At least one state, Missouri, lowered its standards after the federal law went into effect.
Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said it is understandable that some states would set low standards. "They're trying to make sense out of this. They're trying to survive," he said.