WaPo’s Paley turns in what will certainly be a much blogged about story relative to No Child Left Behind’s goal of having all students at the proficient level by 2014 on the various tests states use. Important issue, and one I wish would get a bit more attention, but more detailed attention, couple of thoughts:
First, it’s not really all students, because there are exemptions for students with special needs, some English-language learners, etc…and the participation requirement in assessments is only 95 percent etc…so it’s actually almost all students. Though people prefer to say “all” because it either sounds better or makes the policy seem absurd depending on whether they’re pro or con.
Second, and related, the goal is proficient on the state tests. That means passing the test at the level that the state has defined as “proficient,” which often is not that challenging. And it’s not the same thing as being perfect on a test, which is how it’s often defined in the public debate. In other words, the law doesn’t say that almost all students need to be perfect, merely that they need to be proficient as the state defines it.
Third, it’s not really 2014. Because of the “safe-harbor” provisions in the law that give states credit for making progress but not meeting annual targets, 2014 is not really the deadline. The story should have at least explained these issues a bit more.
Fourth, 2014 is an aspirational goal anyway. The sky doesn’t fall if it’s not met, the public won’t walk away from public schools if it’s not met, etc…In fact, nothing happens! But, it’s there because it’s (a) aspirational and (b) you need a target in a law like this to make the math work. And, because there is such a gap between 100 percent of kids passing (or almost that much, natch) and where the states are now, arguing about this is a little pointless right now. It’s a better argument to have when more states have at least 3 in 4 or even, gasp, 4 in 5, students proficient on their tests. That’s not the case now in most places (cue to reporters, you can check on your state!).
Finally, what seems clear in this story is that you have a bunch of folks grinding their various axes about different aspects of the policy, English-language learners, the testing policy, etc…and the 2014 issue, which really isn’t that momentous, is a convenient proxy for all that since taken literally, it wouldn’t make much sense. Too bad a lot of people continue to say it’s something it’s not. And too bad Paley didn’t unpack that a little more because while what I’ve done here is unpack one set of issues, that’s not to say there are not legitimate ways to write the policy differently.
Update: Kevin Drum (and here), Kevin Carey, and Matt Yglesias (and here) are debating whether this “100 percent provision” is just designed to destroy the public schools. Yglesias and Carey have this right and Drum is uncharacteristically fact free. Per Yglesias, Richard Rothstein’s question of whether a standard can be both challenging and met by most people is surely a legitimate one, but it’s decontextualized from how the policy actually works. And to Kevin Drum’s query about why a lot of schools are getting identified as needing improvement, well, the half of black and Hispanic kids that don’t graduate and all the kids on the wrong end of the achievement gap do go to school somewhere and it’s not just the cities…rather than a national conspiracy, we have a national education problem and any measurement system that’s not a complete joke is going to indicate that. But, the idea that 99 percent of schools will be identified under NCLB as needing improvement is hysterical rhetoric that is flat wrong. Even with no changes to the law between now and 2014 (something nobody supports) that percentage would be higher than it is now but much less than 99 percent because of the safe harbor provisions, which only require some progress on an annual basis. In fact, that’s why the real deadline, were there a hard one in the first place, would actually be more like 2017 anyway, and that’s a decade away…