Left Far, Far Behind

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The No Child Left Behind Act was a truly bipartisan effort. Although it is nice to see such harmony in Washington, that also means neither party is interested in talking about the school reform measure’s serious defects.

President Bush touts the legislation as a great success, ignoring that it does more to frustrate schools than to help them. Sen. John F. Kerry is in a bind. He can’t attack the law head-on because he voted for it, and many of his Democratic colleagues helped create it. So he pretends it would be fine if only Bush had put more money toward education, as the Democrats wanted.

Even if Bush had given schools the extra money, this fundamentally flawed reform would still be choking on its own rigidity and out-of-touch definition of success. Not only does it unfairly punish thousands of schools that are making real progress, it actually encourages schools to leave more students behind.


That’s because the law measures success so strangely, dependent only on whether a certain number of students each year meet an arbitrary level of achievement called “proficient” that differs from state to state. In California, “proficient” is a high bar, defined as being on track to attend a four-year university. Other states came up with much softer definitions so they would look better under the law. But that is just one problem with the proficiency obsession.

Let’s say a teacher starts the year with a classroom full of children whose skills are woefully low, and by the end of that year most have improved tremendously. Their spring tests show them going from a rating of “far below basic” up two big rungs to “basic,” one level below “proficient.” The teacher and school get no credit for this remarkable achievement under No Child Left Behind. The teacher has “failed.” In consequence, such teachers, and the principals of their schools, could ultimately be replaced under the law.

A recent Times analysis by reporters Duke Helfand and Doug Smith found that more than 1,200 California schools that had steadily improved their test scores nonetheless faced disciplinary measures under No Child Left Behind. The number is expected to grow to thousands as more students must meet the “proficient” label in coming years. Wouldn’t it make more sense, and say more about what children are learning, to measure success based on students’ improvement from one year to the next?

The idea behind having one goal for all was to close the worrisome achievement gap between disadvantaged students, who tend to bulge at the low end of the curve, and the more privileged ones. Truth is, the law gives schools reason to ignore their most troubled students for years -- and also to give short shrift to top achievers.

One Santa Ana principal told The Times that her school planned to meet its goal by giving additional instruction to the small group of students who fell just short of the proficiency bar last year. If they can be brought up a wee bit, the school will be labeled a success, even if the rest of the students make little progress. So what about all the students at the bottom of the heap, who need the extra attention even more?

And forget about students who already test as proficient, even though with enriched instruction they might make the leap to advanced. Schools get no credit for helping these students, who are left out of the federal equation. Programs for the gifted have been cut back at public schools nationwide as educators put their time and money toward getting more children to the proficient level.


Rewriting the law to encourage reasonable, incremental improvement for all students would solve these problems and more. It would ease the ridiculous demand that special-education students must make the same strides as everyone else toward proficiency. The different definitions of “proficient” no longer would matter because students would be measured by growth, not by an imaginary bar. And the law could address the achievement gap by requiring more growth among the lowest-scoring students.

Many schools take reform seriously. They are trying like mad -- and improving by any sane definition of the word. They deserve some credit for it, not punishment.