Senior Regional Correspondent

Congressional gridlock is damaging more than just the budget and the economy. The paralysis on Capitol Hill is also putting American education at risk, including in our region.

According to recent standardized test results, growing numbers of schools in Virginia, Maryland and the District potentially face punishment under federal law for failing to meet exam score goals that are draconian and unrealistic and should have been changed years ago.

The problem is Congress’s failure to update the No Child Left Behind law. Anybody who’s been paying attention has long known that it has serious shortcomings. But the Democrats failed to overhaul it when they controlled Congress until early this year, and now tea party Republicans are making it harder still to do what’s right.

In particular, Congress needs to scrap the wacky requirement that sets steadily rising benchmarks that will ultimately oblige schools to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math tests by 2014. Schools that fall short are labeled as “failing” and suffer sanctions including loss of federal aid, the obligation to let students transfer and the complete overhaul of staff and curriculum.

It’s admirable to set ambitious targets, and the 2002 NCLB law has succeeded in making schools more accountable. But requiring 100 percent is ludicrous. It amounts to saying that anything short of A-plus performance is the same as flunking.

What’s more, the NCLB benchmarks apply to every subgroup of students in every school — including non-native English speakers and students with learning disabilities.

“All you have to do is miss any one group and be branded for life as a failing school. It is pretty crazy,” said Fairfax Deputy School Superintendent Richard Moniuszko.

To his credit, Education Secretary Arne Duncan acted Monday to address the issue. He proposed to sidestep Congress and unilaterally exempt states from meeting NCLB’s requirements if they met certain conditions. That could mean sanctions would be delayed while Congress gets more time to fix the problem.

Some Republican leaders objected, however. They said Duncan had no right to act on his own and that his plan could undermine efforts to get a deal in Congress.

Duncan’s “general idea is a good one, but he may push it too far. It may get embroiled in lawsuits or political controversies about whether he should grant waivers or not,” Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, said.

The release of Virginia’s annual test scores Thursday highlighted the surreality of NCLB’s current grading curve. It seemed to suggest the state’s educational performance has worsened drastically.

Fully 62 percent of Virginia schools fell short of a passing grade, up from 39 percent last year. Every school district in Northern Virginia missed the benchmark for what’s called “adequate yearly progress.”

Now ask yourself: Does anybody really believe that Virginia schools deteriorated that much in 12 months? Of course not. It just meant the cutoff for a passing grade had jumped.

For instance, Fairfax as a whole got a failing grade this year for the first time since 2007, even though its overall test scores were unchanged from 2010. Many schools with high overall scores and excellent reputations were listed as inadequate, including W.T. Woodson, Lake Braddock and Chantilly high schools.

In Maryland, 44 percent of elementary and middle schools were labeled as failing earlier this summer. That seems a wee bit at odds with the assessment of Education Week magazine, which has ranked Maryland’s public schools as No. 1 in the nation for three consecutive years.

“NCLB has outlived its usefulness,” said Josh Starr, Montgomery County’s new superintendent. “Test scores are not the equivalent of a profit and loss statement. . . . You have to look at multiple sources of information to understand how well kids are doing and how well schools are doing.”

Ultimately, the failure lies with Congress and the White House. President Obama, preoccupied with the stimulus package and health-care reform, took too long proposing an NCLB overhaul when Democrats controlled Congress. Now Republicans who control the House can’t agree on a proposal, partly because some conservatives believe the federal government should stay out of education entirely.

“What’s changed in the last two years, frankly, is the tea party. There’s such an intense, anti-federal component in the ideology now,” said Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, an independent think tank.

NCLB passed originally with bipartisan support and was championed by a Republican president, George W. Bush. Correcting its defects is a good place to start whenever Congress is ready to set aside partisanship and get something done.