Changes needed to meet goals of No Child Left Behind
Hawaii's approach to achieving total student proficiency in tests requires bigger gains as the deadline under the federal law nears.
The federal government's No Child Left Behind law gives public schools wide latitude in how they go about reaching the near-impossible goal of having all students proficient in grade-level reading and math by 2013-2014.
Local authorities are largely free to devise tests, set target numbers for improvement and choose programs to help foundering campuses so as not to suffer the most severe penalties the law also imposes.
Schools in some states have elected to institute achievement gains in steady, uniform increments through the 12-year period from 2002 when the law became effective.
Hawaii, with a unique statewide school system, decided to set lower goals in the initial years, increasing the percentage of students testing proficient in bigger steps in later years. Schools in 22 other states, such as California and Ohio, adopted similar procedures.
That strategy, says a report by the Center on Education Policy, an independent organization that focuses on public education issues, will require island schools to make steeper gains as the target year nears. However, the report -- besides pointing out the obvious -- seems to make no predictions about which approach will be more successful and, indeed, notes that schools that choose to make consistent gains will find difficulty reaching the 100 percent mark.
Hawaii education officials reasoned that administrators, teachers and students needed time to adapt to the new standards and aimed percentages for progress on proficiency tests lower at first, then boosting targets in the later years when all involved were better prepared. So the percentage of students testing proficient in reading in 2003-2004 was set at 30 while in the current school year, the target is 58 percent. Ohio and California went the same way for the same reasons.
It must be said, however, that there are school districts gambling that the law would be changed and that the 100 percent requirement would be modified, but efforts to revise it this year failed in Congress.
While the law is onerous, its goals are worthy. Nonetheless, giving schools and states broad leeway may not give a true measure of achievement. At issue is the range of tests; if some are more demanding than others, high proficiency could actually be deceptive, which only comparisons to national exams can uncover.
Over time, the U.S. Department of Education has grudgingly adjusted No Child Left Behind to allow exceptions, recognizing that flexibility is warranted, particularly with non-English-speaking immigrants and disabled children. But the department has not acknowledged that myriad other factors, such as students missing a test, should not force penalties on schools.
Congress and a new administration should support reasonable adjustments to the law.