California education officials Wednesday decided to maintain rigorous proficiency standards for students despite projections that nearly all schools will fail to meet them by a federal deadline of 2014.
That, in turn, could trigger sanctions and jeopardize millions of dollars in federal funding.
The State Board of Education stuck with its demanding definition of "proficiency" in English-language arts and math, as determined by state tests. The definition will be included in a plan for complying with the new federal education law, known as No Child Left Behind.
The law requires 100% of students -- including those in special education and others still learning English -- to be proficient in English and math within 11 years. The federal law did not, however, define proficiency, leaving that to the states.
California is among several states that set demanding academic standards before the federal law took effect last year. It defined proficiency as being ready to attend a four-year university by high school graduation, but never expected all students to reach that level.
Now California and other states are in the awkward position of either sticking to their high standards or lowering them so it's easier to comply with the federal law.
California education officials rejected calls from some educators and lawmakers to deem students who merely meet "basic" standards as proficient. Those students have not fully mastered the material the state says they need to know.
But projections indicate that sticking to the more rigorous measure of proficiency means that as many as 98% of schools will fall short by the 2014 deadline. And 100% of schools serving mostly low-income children -- 4,943 campuses -- will fail to meet the mark.
Officials acknowledged the difficulty of readying all of California's 6 million schoolchildren for admission to four-year universities.
"Today, there is no school in the state of California that meets the 100% proficiency challenge," said Reed Hastings, president of the state education board. "The federal guidelines apply an extremely rigorous challenge. That's the task ahead."
The state's decision to stick with its definition of proficiency came on the day President Bush marked the one-year anniversary of the No Child Left Behind law.
Under the law, states must test students annually in grades three through eight in English and math, and schools must show annual progress toward the federal goal of 100% of students proficient. The law also calls for students in persistently failing schools to get extra tutoring services or transfers to better schools -- at district expense.
Schools that continue to falter face a range of state sanctions, from having their teachers replaced to being taken over by outside managers. Those that serve mostly low-income children -- about 60% of California campuses -- also risk loss of significant federal funding. These schools now receive about $2 billion in federal money each year.
California officials indicated Wednesday that they will retain the state's own elaborate ranking system for schools, known as the Academic Performance Index, but the new federal law will determine whether schools suffer sanctions for poor performance.
Some educators and policymakers say the Bush administration hasn't invested enough money at the outset to help schools meet federal expectations. But Bush, at a White House speech Wednesday, defended both the funding levels and the law itself, which he said would help restore confidence in public education.
"With the No Child Left Behind act, we have committed the nation to higher standards for every single public school," he said. "We will not accept a school that does not teach and will not change."
California and other states must submit their school accountability plans, including their definition of proficiency, to the U.S. Department of Education by month's end. The department must approve the plans.
Five states -- Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Indiana and Ohio -- submitted their plans early, and all won federal approval Wednesday.
Thus far, the Bush administration has shown flexibility on how it will allow a state to define proficiency.
Colorado, for example, is going to count students as proficient even if state tests show they are only partly meeting the state's demanding proficiency standards. Colorado education officials said their plan would not lower expectations.
"I think most people around the country recognize that Colorado's academic standards are quite high," said Bill Windler, assistant commissioner of special services in the Colorado Department of Education. "We felt that was an appropriate adjustment relative to calculating adequate yearly progress."
Officials in other states, while applauding the 100% goal, are fretting about how to reach it.
"It would take me four generations to get to 100%," said Peter McWalters, commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, who has yet to submit his state's definition of proficiency. "That's not acceptable."
California's academic standards in reading and math are among the most demanding in the nation, and its tests are among the toughest, leading educators say.
For that reason, "We felt from the very beginning that [having 100% of students at the proficient level] was an unrealistic expectation," said Kerry Mazzoni, the state's education secretary. "But we are keeping our eyes on the prize for what we want in California -- keeping student achievement central to all our decisions. We would rather set the bar high and not have everyone reach it than set it low and have everyone reach it."