For the last seven years, since the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, the federal government has been judging schools by a crude and uneven measure: how many students scored as proficient in a given year. Never mind that "proficient" meant markedly different things in different states, or even that its meaning changed over time. And no one seemed to care that this arbitrary measure meant that more students were left behind than not. Schools had to raise a certain number of students, across a demographic spectrum, to that level.
An article in Sunday's Times asked why schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District aren't being evaluated based on how much each student's standardized test scores improve — or slide — over the years. It's a question that this page has been asking on behalf of the entire nation almost since No Child Left Behind passed.
Unlike most of California, L.A. Unified has the data to measure this kind of progress. The state is now creating such data systems, and the Obama administration has called on all states to do the same.
But No Child Left Behind sticks with the proficiency requirement, made worse by the impossible goal of bringing all students to that level by 2014. The law was supposed to be reauthorized more than two years ago, and at that time there was widespread agreement that revisions should include judging schools by student growth, not by how many students are classified as proficient. The current standard encourages schools to ignore students at both ends of the educational scale. They get no credit for raising students from proficient to advanced, or from below-basic to basic.
But as the 2008 presidential election loomed, No Child Left Behind was allowed to continue in its present form. President Obama has proposed some sane changes for reauthorization, including measuring growth instead of proficiency, but the subject has been eclipsed by the economy and other urgent issues. At the same time, the president is calling for disciplining schools that have persistently failed to meet the federal requirements. New York state had been changing its test scoring so that it was progressively easier for students to rank as proficient; this year, it recalibrated its definition of proficiency to a higher standard, and school results plummeted.
It's hard to blame school districts for not adding student improvement as a measure of educational success when the federal law insists that proficiency is all that counts. It's true that many schools across the country have let down their students, but Congress has failed them just as badly. No Child Left Behind is long overdue for thoughtful revision.