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.”
Vast academic differences
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.