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'No Child' Target Is Called Out of Reach

President Bush, with students Tez Taylor and Cecilia Pallcio at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio, marks the federal No Child Left Behind law surrounded by U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), left, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), then-U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
President Bush, with students Tez Taylor and Cecilia Pallcio at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio, marks the federal No Child Left Behind law surrounded by U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), left, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), then-U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). (2002 Photo By Ron Edmonds -- Associated Press)

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No Child Left Behind, the landmark federal education law, sets a lofty standard: that all students tested in reading and math will reach grade level by 2014. Even when the law was enacted five years ago, almost no one believed that standard was realistic.

But now, as Congress begins to debate renewing the law, lawmakers and education officials are confronting the reality of the approaching deadline and the difficult political choice between sticking with the vision of universal proficiency or backing away from it.

"There is a zero percent chance that we will ever reach a 100 percent target," said Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. "But because the title of the law is so rhetorically brilliant, politicians are afraid to change this completely unrealistic standard. They don't want to be accused of leaving some children behind."

The debate over the perfection standard encapsulates the key arguments for and against No Child Left Behind.

Critics, including some teachers unions and many testing experts, view the law as a forced march toward an impossible education nirvana. They are lobbying Congress to reduce the 100 percent target and delay the 2014 deadline. They are also pushing for the elimination of sanctions -- which can cost millions of dollars and result in school takeovers -- that school systems face for failing to make yearly progress toward the goal.

But critics face an uphill challenge because of the rhetorical power of the argument for a universal proficiency target and a deadline. Anything less, advocates say, will hurt children, especially society's most vulnerable: poor and minority students.

"We need to stay the course," U.S. Deputy Education Secretary Raymond Simon said. "The mission is doable, and we don't need to back off that right now."

President Bush is pushing this year for reauthorization of one of his top domestic programs. In a joint House-Senate hearing yesterday, senior Democrats and Republicans said they would work toward renewal of the law. But in interviews in the days before the hearing, some key lawmakers said that universal proficiency is all but impossible to meet.

"The idea of 100 percent is, in any legislation, not achievable," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate education committee. "There isn't a member of Congress or a parent or a student that doesn't understand that."

Kennedy added that the law's universal proficiency standard served to inspire students and teachers. But "it's too early in the process to predict whether we'll consider changes" to the 2014 deadline, he said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary and supporter of the law, said Americans don't want politicians to lower standards.

"Are we going to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and say only 85 percent of men are created equal?" Alexander asked. "Most of our politics in America is about the disappointment of not meeting the high goals we set for ourselves."


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