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Researchers Ask Whether NCLB’s Goals for Proficiency Are Realistic

By David J. Hoff — November 22, 2006 4 min read
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While some leaders in Washington may believe that the No Child Left Behind Act is almost perfect, researchers who took part in a recent conference here suggest it’s more like a rough draft of a term paper that needs major rewriting.

The nearly 5-year-old federal law sets unattainable goals that all students demonstrate proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014, and it doesn’t give schools the support they need to reach those goals, according to education researchers who presented papers at the Nov. 13-14 gathering. The Campaign for Educational Equity, based at Teachers College, Columbia University, sponsored the event.

The law will be unworkable “unless we jettison the demand that all children be proficient,” said Richard Rothstein, a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington. “We can not have a single standard … that simultaneously challenges students” at all levels of achievement.

While Mr. Rothstein said he would like to see the NCLB law repealed, others at the conference said many of its key elements could be retained as long as the law’s achievement goals are reachable, and the schools failing to reach them are given adequate support to meet them.

“If you are going to set targets, you have to look around and say, ‘How do we know this is achievable?’ ” said Robert L. Linn, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

The researchers’ beliefs are a marked contrast to the assumptions of top federal policymakers who will play a central role in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in 2001.

In a session with reporters in August, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings described the law as “99.9 percent pure,” likening it to Ivory soap, whose longtime advertising pitch declared the product “99 and forty-four one-hundredths percent pure.”

Although the secretary has sought to make implementation of certain provisions of the law easier for states and districts, she has said she won’t bend on the goal of universal proficiency by 2014.

“It’s an absolute necessity that we achieve 100 percent proficiency,” David L. Dunn, Ms. Spellings’ chief of staff, said at a separate panel discussion, in Washington on Nov. 16.

The Democrats expected to lead the House and Senate education committees in the new Congress—Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, respectively—also are firmly behind the goal of universal proficiency in reading and mathematics.

“There’s absolutely no appetite … to revisit the 2014 target,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, who responded to the presentations of Mr. Rothstein and Mr. Linn at the Teachers College conference.

Mind the Gaps

Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law next year. An overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which encompasses a host of federal programs in K-12 education, the law set the goal of universal proficiency and created an accountability system that monitors schools and districts to ensure students are making adequate yearly progress—or AYP—toward reaching proficiency by 2014.

Instead of universal proficiency, participants at the Teachers College event said, lawmakers should consider focusing on one of the law’s other goals: closing the gaps in student achievement that exist between most racial and ethnic minority groups and whites.

“How do we provide a meaningful educational opportunity for [minority] kids?” said Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, a project of Teachers College intended to analyze policies affecting poor and minority students. By doing so, the country would make progress toward 100 percent proficiency, he said.

Mr. Linn suggested that the law could set goals for AYP that are based on experiences of schools that demonstrate dramatic achievement gains. For example, such goals could be based on the achievement levels and growth in schools with the top 20 percent of achievement growth, he said.

The current AYP targets have “become increasingly unrealistic,” he said. “As we get closer to 2014, you’re going to have all schools failing to reach AYP targets.”

In addition to calling the law’s achievement goals unreasonable, another researcher said the law fails to address problems in schools where large percentages of students are failing to progress toward proficiency.

In requiring that AYP results for schools be published, the law assumes that schools with persistent academic problems are going to figure out a way to turn around, either on their own or with assistance from their districts or states, said Richard F. Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

But education leaders at the local and state levels don’t have the tools they need to fix their academic programs, so whatever plan they devise “is the same thing [they’re currently doing] with a different name on it,” he said.

“You better have the ability to fix the worst cases, or the policy loses credibility,” Mr. Elmore said. “I think that’s where we are now.”

Mr. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute said at the New York City event that the commitment to complete proficiency might wane as the deadline of 2014 nears.

By then, the attitude might become that 100 percent proficiency “was a nice aspirational goal, but it needs to be revisited,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Researchers Ask Whether NCLB’s Goals for Profic

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