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."
Foes and supporters alike praise the law for drawing attention to student achievement gaps. The law requires testing for all students in reading and math from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school; it also requires reporting of scores for groups of students including racial and ethnic minorities, those from low-income families, those with limited English skills and those with disabilities who receive special education.
But testing experts say there are vast academic differences among children of the same racial or socioeconomic background. Countries with far less racial diversity than the United States still find wide variations in student performance. Even in relatively homogenous Singapore, for example, a world leader in science and math tests, a quarter of the students tested are not proficient in math, and 49 percent fall short in science.
"Most people are afraid that once you acknowledge this variation, then you have to tolerate major inequities between black and white students," said Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University education professor. "That's not necessarily true, but that's why the political world does not really address the issue."
Although no major school system is known to have reached 100 percent proficiency, Education Department officials pointed to individual schools across the country that have reached the standard as evidence that it is possible. In Virginia, schools have achieved universal proficiency on reading and math tests 45 times since 2002, officials said.
The only school they cited in the Washington region as having met that mark was the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, a regional school with selective admissions. Principal Evan M. Glazer said his school, which has an elite reputation, was hardly a representative example. On whether the nation can replicate that success, Glazer said: "I don't think it's very realistic."
Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said it was "absurd" to expect total proficiency, especially when federal officials require immigrant children who have been in U.S. schools for little more than a year to meet the standard. His 164,000-student system, the largest in the Washington region, is sparring with the Education Department over the immigrant testing rule.
Dale and other critics of the law have called for No Child Left Behind to measure the growth of students from year to year instead of expecting them to meet fixed benchmarks. But Dale said he understood why federal officials and lawmakers take a different view.
"How can you publicly state it's okay to have some children not meet standards?" Dale said. "Politically, you're committing suicide if you say it."
Some experts predict that states will weaken their definition of proficiency to make it appear that all students are on track. The law requires students to meet "challenging academic standards" but allows each state to define proficiency on its own terms and design its own tests.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who voted against the law in 2001 and remains a leading critic, derided the universal proficiency standard. "It's just like a communist country saying that they used to have 100 percent participation in elections," Hoekstra said. "You knew it wasn't true, but a bureaucrat could come up with that answer. And that's what will happen here."
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking Republican on the House education committee, said the 2014 deadline forces educators to pay attention to each student. He said he is open to slight changes in the law to exempt certain students with disabilities from the proficiency requirement. But he said he won't back down from the law's core ideal, citing his own six children and 28 grandchildren. "Which one of them would I like to leave behind?" McKeon asked.