Measurable Progress in School

Saturday, June 9, 2007

HAS STUDENT achievement increased under the No Child Left Behind Act? The answer, according to an objective new report, is a resounding yes. That should give pause to those who seek to derail reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

An exhaustive study by the Center on Education Policy showed students scoring higher on state reading and math tests and narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students. The pace of improvement increased after President Bush signed the legislation in 2002. The report has extra credibility because, as The Post's Amit R. Paley wrote, it was written by a nonpartisan group that has criticized the implementation of No Child Left Behind.

The report is full of caveats about crediting the 2002 federal law for any improvements, and rightly so. Learning depends on many factors. It's clear, though, that many of the elements that lead to student success are in place because of the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Being held accountable for the performance of all students leads schools to pay more attention to black and Hispanic students, children with disabilities and those learning English. The law has spurred schools across the country to focus on the qualifications and training of their teachers, to use data to drive instruction and to emphasize results. Testing students to prove their proficiency and making those results public brought needed accountability to America's classrooms.

It's troubling that the gains students show on state tests are not mirrored in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The latter, the "national report card," showed some gains, most notably in math, but there is no match with the state tests. Perhaps some of the difference is attributable to the difference in nature of the two tests. Still, it's clear, as was documented in a report this week from the U.S. Education Department, that there are wide and unacceptable disparities in state standards. That some states watered down their standards to make it easier to reach NCLB goals for student proficiency is a huge failing of the law.

Congress can correct that when it reauthorizes No Child Left Behind. America can no longer afford the quaint tradition of each state defining success differently. There should be one measure for what it means to be proficient in a subject and at a grade level. Some have argued, as Education Secretary Margaret Spellings does on the page opposite today, that this would lead to a lowering of standards. But that would happen only if she or her successor allowed it. Get the best educational minds together; set the bar high. Algebra is algebra whether in Wyoming or Tennessee, and parents everywhere deserve to know whether their children have learned to solve equations.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company