Education Standards Threatened


The nation’s new education law that promises to “leave no child behind” may force California and several other states to lower their academic standards for public schools or risk billions in federal funds.

The quandary stems from the federal law requiring that 100% of students in all states be proficient in English and math within 12 years.

Before the law was passed, California set a high bar for proficiency, demanding that students learn everything from Euclidean geometry to medieval literature before they graduate from high school. As it stands, only one-third of the state’s students now meet the proficient level.


Though education officials said they don’t want to lower the standards, sticking to them probably means falling short of federal goals--and perhaps down the line, losing federal dollars.

“The federal government has put us in a bind,” said Kerry Mazzoni, California’s secretary of education. “We’re never going to be able to meet the 100% mark.”

The federal law leaves the details of testing and accountability to the 50 states: Each must establish its own academic standards, define what it means by proficiency on tests and ensure that students make what it considers adequate academic progress annually.

California began setting its standards four years ago, and through tests each spring determines whether students are proficient for their grade level. The state aimed high, requiring that proficient fourth-graders be able to identify metaphors and similes in literary works and that eighth-graders master algebra.

Ultimately, California students who are proficient in English and math when they graduate from high school are considered ready to attend a four-year university.

States that aim lower have a better chance of satisfying federal requirements. And, like California, states that set demanding standards before the law was enacted--including Michigan, Rhode Island and Colorado--are scrambling for solutions to satisfy Washington.

Education policymakers in California and elsewhere said lowering their standards would undermine credibility in their school accountability systems.

“Every state that is trying to [respond to Washington] in reasonably good faith is going to say, ‘Why do I feel like I’ve just been set up?’ ” said Peter McWalters, commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Some state officials and education experts said that is the latest example of how the federal law doesn’t take into account the realities of public education, especially in urban districts. For example, students in failing schools are supposed to be able to transfer to other campuses, but often there is no space available. And all teachers are supposed to be “highly qualified” within four years, but some districts have trouble filling their worst schools with anyone other than rookies.

McWalters and several state education chiefs said they applaud Congress for its ambitious goal of 100% proficiency. Still, as the Rhode Island education commissioner asks, “Is it doable?”

The Bush administration has answered yes--with the right effort.

Federal officials said the “No Child Left Behind” law should inspire educators to reexamine everything from how they spend money to what they teach.

Ultimately, the officials said, the law aims to close the achievement gap that separates higher performing whites and Asians from their African American and Latino peers. That problem has persisted despite the federal government’s pumping more than $100 billion into schools serving the most disadvantaged children since the mid-1960s.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” said Eugene Hickok, undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education. “We need to rethink the way we deliver education in this country. That is the bottom line to this law.”

Under the law, schools must make measurable annual progress toward the 100% goal. States also must show steady improvement for each major ethnic group, as well as for low-income students.

Educational researchers who have studied the law said the 100% goal will not be achievable within 12 years, especially in states that have set a high bar for proficiency and those that serve large numbers of English learners and special education students.

These experts said most states have shown only modest progress over the last decade on a separate, rigorous test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“It’s not workable,” said Robert Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. “It’s hard to see how we would suddenly increase [scores] three- or fourfold just because this law has passed.”

Schools that fail to improve rapidly enough in the coming years can face state and federal sanctions. Besides risking the loss of federal funds, schools can have their teachers and principals removed and they can be taken over by their states, although such extreme measures are unlikely on a broad scale.

Linn and other education experts said thousands of schools could fail to meet expectations, raising serious questions about whether the states and the federal government have enough resources--and expertise--to handle so much failure.

But Linn and other leading experts also are worried about states redefining what it means to be proficient to include students who fall below that level.

“I think there are strong incentives to set the bar lower if [states] haven’t already done it,” Linn said.

Colorado is proposing such a system. The state wants to have separate definitions of proficiency--one for its own use and one for Washington’s.

For federal purposes, Colorado wants to define proficiency as those students who are both “proficient” and “partially proficient” on state English and math tests. The state would stick with only “proficient” for use among its own schools.

The state’s education commissioner, William J. Moloney, sees no conflict in the separate definitions, noting that Colorado’s high standards are the ones that count in the eyes of the state’s schools.

“If I’m delivering good things for kids in Colorado, I’m not the least worried that a posse from Washington is going to show up,” Moloney said. “We are quite confident that what we’re doing will be blessed by the federal government. At the end of the day, the bottom line is results for kids.”

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education said Colorado’s definition of proficiency does not appear to be workable, although no formal decision has been made.

Nearly all states, including California, are still drafting their proposals for how they would meet the federal law. These are due in January and must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

One option being discussed in California is to classify 1.5 million students as proficient who now are deemed to have only a basic grasp of English and math.

But the idea is unpopular with the state’s leading educators, including Secretary of Education Mazzoni and State Board of Education members.

“To consign everyone to failure is no way to upgrade the system,” said Marion Joseph, a member of the state education board. “We in no way want to lessen the pressure on the system. This doesn’t help the situation. We don’t have an answer yet.”

Even if officials used this strategy, most of California’s 8,000 schools could still fail to meet annual targets for improvement that the federal law requires, according to a preliminary state analysis.

Just 33% of youngsters statewide were proficient on California’s English-language arts tests last spring, up slightly from 31% the year before. Some schools had no proficient students.

The results underscore the enormous task of raising achievement levels, especially in overcrowded schools that are staffed by inexperienced teachers and serve legions of students who speak English as a second language.

The challenges are apparent at Los Angeles Academy, a public middle school in South Los Angeles. Just 4% of the school’s sixth-graders were proficient in English-language arts, according to results from last spring’s state test.

Mistie Barela, who teaches English as a second language, ticks off her school’s obstacles: class sizes of 40 students. Little training for new teachers. Multiple reforms that are confusing and uncoordinated. The year-round calendar that chops more than three weeks off the school year and disrupts classes with stop-and-start schedules.

“Give us the resources, give us the time. Give us the appropriate pay. Lower my class sizes,” Barela said.

“Before jumping to the top of the ladder, let’s take the steps to get there,” she said.



State Proficiency Requirements

Examples of what California students must know to be considered proficient:

Fourth-grade English language arts:

Identify metaphors and similes in literary works.

Distinguish between cause and effect, and between fact and opinion, in expository text.

Fourth-grade math:

Know that numbers such as 2, 3, 5 and 7 do not have any factors except 1 and themselves, and that such numbers are called prime numbers.

Round whole numbers through the millions to the nearest ten, hundred, thousand, ten thousand or hundred thousand.

Eighth-grade English language arts:

Understand the characteristics and purposes of various forms of poetry, including couplets, epics and sonnets.

Eighth-grade math:

Understand the concepts of parallel lines and perpendicular lines, and how those slopes are related.

Tenth-grade English language arts:

Analyze how a work of literature is related to the themes and issues of its historical period.

Design and publish documents by using advanced publishing software and graphic programs.

Tenth-grade math:

Be adept at operations on polynomials, including long division.

Understand and use the properties of logarithms.