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It's 2014. All Children Are Supposed To Be Proficient. What Happened?

President George W. Bush, seated, signs No Child Left Behind into law at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio. Ron Edmonds/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

toggle caption Ron Edmonds/ASSOCIATED PRESS

President George W. Bush, seated, signs No Child Left Behind into law at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio.

Ron Edmonds/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Take yourself back to those highly emotional, patriotic months after the 9/11 attacks.

In the midst of war, terrorism, fear and mourning, one bill passed 87-10 in the Senate and by a similar margin in the House — with equal support from both sides of the aisle. It was signed into law in January 2002 by George W. Bush, with the liberal lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, by his side.

The law set a simple if daunting goal: All of the nation's students would perform at grade level on state tests. Every single one. 100 percent. Or as the name of the law put it, there would be No Child Left Behind. Here's the formal language:

"Each State shall establish a timeline for adequate yearly progress. The timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001-2002 school year, all students ... will meet or exceed the State's proficient level of academic achievements on the State assessments ..."

So here it is, 12 years later, 2014. And the law, NCLB, is still in effect. All children, under federal law, are supposed to be at grade level.

Spoiler alert: They're not.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the "Nation's Report Card," "proficiency" rates last year were below 50 percent for every racial and ethnic group, in both reading and math, in both 4th and 8th grade. The exceptions? Asians, in all subjects (51-64 percent) and whites in 4th grade math only (54 percent).

So, what is proficiency, anyway? Did the 100% goal ever make sense? What were the impacts of setting such a goal, positive and negative? And where do we go from here?

Proficiency, as defined by the law, ain't nothing but a number. Morgan Polikoff, an education professor at the University of Southern California, calls it a "crude gauge of student performance."

It's a particular score on a particular test of reading or math given by states to students each spring in grades 3 through 12. Change the test, or the passing score, and you change the definition of proficiency.

"I've called proficiency a 'weasel word,' " says Andrew Ho at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "It inspires consensus where there really is none."

Did The Goal Make Sense?

Sandy Kress was a lawyer and school board president in Dallas, Texas in the 1990s when he got interested in the role of tests in ensuring educational accountability. As a top education advisor to President George W. Bush, he became one of the chief architects of No Child Left Behind. He says the inspiration for the 100 percent goal was simple.

"This was a bipartisan consensus. The Democrats, under [California Congressman] George Miller in particular, with involvement from the Education Trust, along with President Bush and Republicans, essentially asked themselves in 2001: What's our vision? Do we want to get a few kids performing better? Most kids? Which kids don't we want to get better? Which kids don't we want to make it to the bar of grade-level proficiency?"

It sounds convincing. Harvard's Andrew Ho says that's the problem.

"Leaving no child behind is the right rhetorical goal. It generally resonates with educators, students, teachers, administrators, and the public. We don't want to leave a child behind, and the standard we want them to achieve should be high."

The law required that states report more than just average test scores. It made them report, separately, the scores of traditionally disadvantaged subgroups: ethnic and racial minorities, disabled students, low-income students and English learners.

Ho, like most observers, agrees that this focus on the achievement gap is NCLB's most important and positive legacy.

But, he adds, "I think it's safe to say, and we anticipated this early on, that policymakers erred. They turned an aspirational goal that inspires support, into a target for accountability, meant for consequences."

Some of those consequences were intended, and others were unintended.

The reason we're still talking about No Child Left Behind is that it included an "or else." Schools that failed to make 'Adequate Yearly Progress' toward the 100 percent proficiency goal for each subgroup would face sanctions, such as reorganization or closure.

There were far fewer provisions for positive incentives, either to reward schools that did well or to help the students that weren't doing as well.

"We tried to push that, and it never really got done because I don't think anyone understood how the federal government could create carrots," says Kress, pointing out that the feds contribute a small portion, about 12 percent, of the public school budget. "That's a fair criticism of the law."

What Was The Impact?

No Child Left Behind coincided with real gains on national tests. A widely cited NAEP analysis shows statistically significant gains in math attributable to NCLB, but no evidence for such gains in reading. According to other analyses, the achievement gap narrowed too.

Kress says he'll take those numbers "to meet my maker."

But the structure of the law, with an aspirational goal married to real punishments, brought with it a wide range of unintended negative consequences.

Here's a little thought experiment to illustrate:

Let's say, for some reason, you came to work tomorrow and were put before a group of 10 kindergartners. By the end of the month they all have to be playing the piano proficiently. No exceptions. Or you lose your job.

The kids are from a wide variety of backgrounds. Four of them come from families that struggle economically. Two of them are already Suzuki-trained, but others are far behind.

What do you do?

You could define "proficient" as playing a single scale with one hand.

You could ask that the slower kids be left out of the test.

You could spend all day, every day, practicing.

You could simply ask for more time to meet the goal.

The evidence shows that states and schools, to varying extents and in various ways, did all these things.

"At least in the academic community, it was well know that 100% proficiency wasn't going to happen without gamesmanship, and the amount of improvement that was needed in some states was not plausible," says USC's Polikoff.

In response, he says, schools gave more and more tests to prepare students to take the state tests. They practiced "educational triage," focusing more resources on students who were just below passing, to the detriment of both higher and lower achievers. They classified more students as disabled to get them out of taking the tests. In certain cases, they cheated.

As the years passed and the "adequate yearly progress" targets grew, he says, more and more schools in more and more states fell into the category of "failing" — 50 percent, 60 percent, even 70 percent. "By setting up an unattainable target, states stopped paying attention," says Polikoff. They just gave up.

Joanne Weiss inherited No Child Left Behind as chief of staff to President Obama's Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. The biggest downside of the law, she said, was the games that states played with the definition of proficiency.

"By letting every state set their own benchmark, define their own standard and use their own assessment, combined with the requirement of 100 percent proficiency, they basically incented states to keep dumbing down and lowering their cut score in order to get more kids across the bar," Weiss explains. "And that has done a huge disservice to our educational system. Huge."

By the time Weiss, Duncan and Obama arrived on the scene, NCLB was already overdue for reauthorization.

Political realities made passing any large piece of legislation through Congress difficult, so the Education Department came up with another solution. They would write permission slips, known as waivers, to each state that wanted to change their accountability formula. Essentially those states make up a new definition of "adequate yearly progress."

Where Do We Go From Here?

Almost every state is currently operating under an NCLB waiver.

They have constructed what Ho calls "Rube Goldberg" accountability formulas, specifying different targets for different groups. A big change seen in about half the states is a focus on growth — how fast test scores are moving and in which direction, not just how many kids have passed a specific score on the tests.

"If you focus on growth you can see which schools are improving," says Weiss, who is now an independent consultant. High-achieving schools won't stagnate. Schools full of poor kids won't be unfairly punished if they're making progress. "It makes sure the kids at the top are being served as well as the kids at the bottom."

Some states, such as Massachusetts and Kentucky, as well as the CORE group of districts in California, are including new indicators alongside test scores: graduation rates, college readiness and even school-climate surveys.

The other big change, of course, is the Common Core State Standards. In theory, by setting out a common definition of what students should know and be able to do, the Common Core takes some of the "weasel word"-ness out of proficiency.

Plus, states are using a smaller number of different tests: PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and a few privately created tests. This makes it easier to compare results.

But the "new accountability" lacks something No Child Left Behind had: simplicity.

"It's harder to have a clear easy talking point for people to rally around," acknowledges Weiss. On the other hand, this approach "acknowledges the complexity of the real world." And she says, it also allows states to experiment with different approaches to find out what works best.

For Sandy Kress, though, the loss of a clear goal brings a loss of urgency: "I feel very sad because rather than fixing and advancing accountability, we seem to be weakening and abandoning it."

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