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Globe Editorial

Don’t cut standards for No Child Left Behind

August 22, 2011

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THE OBAMA administration has been signaling since February of last year that it was getting ready to abandon a core component of the No Child Left Behind education reform law - 100 percent proficiency for all students in math and reading by 2014. And this month it did, announcing the availability of state waivers from the federal law’s tough accountability measure.

In high-performing states like Massachusetts, removing the requirement that all students step up to the next rung on the MCAS ladder - proficiency - could be a motivation killer. Relaxing expectations and standards now would be especially harmful in the state’s low-income urban schools, where the pressure of the test often stands in for parents who lack the time or savvy to fight for better schools.

For all its flaws, the nine-year-old NCLB has been a symbol of hope. Each spring, students across the country sit for tests that measure not only their own academic progress, but the ability of their teachers to push them toward higher achievement levels. And the law exposed the hiding places of principals and teachers who frequently failed to prepare their students. A mere passing score simply wasn’t enough on a scale that included proficient and advanced.

There’s plenty of room for improvement in the federal law, however. Currently, about 40 percent of the nation’s schools are failing to make “adequate yearly progress’’ toward proficiency. And US Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that number could soon reach 80 percent. That says more about a flawed measurement tool than it does the quality of the nation’s schools.

Duncan instead proposes exemptions for states that make reasonable efforts to reform their education systems. States that implement strict measures to improve failing schools, hold teachers accountable for student performance, and ensure that students are “college- and career-ready’’ could be eligible for waivers from the requirement that growing numbers of students make “adequate yearly progress’’ on their test scores. (States that fall behind now risk losing federal aid.)

Duncan’s proposal makes sense insofar as it would keep states from feeling pressure to dumb down their standardized exams continually as a means to reach 100 percent proficiency. The drawback is that it measures reforms, not results.

It’s still possible to strive for proficiency without blind allegiance to test scores. Massachusetts, for example, offers a good model in its required “education proficiency plan’’ for weaker students. If students show reasonable academic growth toward proficiency, they stay on track to graduate. Proficiency remains the goal.

Duncan says he doesn’t want his department to be perceived as a “compliance-driven bureaucracy.’’ But some educators may see that as an invitation to return to the bad old days of low expectations and social promotions. As Duncan changes course, he should take equal care not to be perceived as a pushover.