‘Proficiency for All’ Is an Oxymoron
Accountability should begin with realistic goals that recognize human variability.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires all students to be proficient by 2014. This is widely understood to be unattainable because 2014 is too soon. But there is no date by which all (or nearly all) students, even middle-class students, can achieve proficiency. “Proficiency for all” is an oxymoron.
The federal education legislation does not define proficiency, but refers to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Although the Bush administration winks and nods when states require only low-level skills, the law says proficiency must be “challenging,” a term taken from NAEP’s definition. Democrats and Republicans stress that the No Child Left Behind law’s tough standards are a world apart from the minimum competency required by 1970s-style accountability programs.
But no goal can be both challenging to and achievable by all students across the achievement distribution. Standards can either be minimal and present little challenge to typical students, or challenging and unattainable by below-average students. No standard can simultaneously do both—hence the oxymoron—but that is what the No Child...
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