Leaving children behind again

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The No Child Left Behind Act is leaving too many children behind. Why? Maybe we’re setting our standards too high.

That startling suggestion comes from a University of Chicago economist as Congress begins debate on reauthorization of the 5-year-old law. And you know what? For some kids, he may have a point.

At the center of the complicated debate is a simple goal: Every child in the nation should be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable goal, depending on how high you set the bar for “proficient.”

Can we say, for starters, that kids who act in good faith to complete their schools’ required courses should at least be able to read their diplomas when they leave high school? Or make change at a cash register? Or calculate how much air needs to be put in their tires?

That shouldn’t be too much to ask. Yet for too long it has been too much for some schools to provide.

After all, if you’re looking for social payback, consider this: Illiteracy may be the biggest contributing factor to street crime, judging by the high percentage of illiterates incarcerated in our bloated prisons. In today’s world, there’s not much left for a kid who can’t read, do math or win a professional sports contract.

If no one argues with the worthiness of President Bush’s goal, everyone argues about the best way to get there.

Students in schools that fail to show enough progress on state tests over a two-year period can transfer to a school that is making faster progress. Schools that perform really poorly can be shut down. Of course, some schools need to be shut down. But all of them are pressured to show progress.

Even schools with superior reputations can find themselves penalized in various ways if they fail to show enough progress. This has led to numerous reports of teachers forced to interrupt their normal classroom work to “teach to the tests” given by states to measure student progress.

Now a new university study lends credence to the common perception that the No Child Left Behind Act may encourage teachers to leave behind students at the high and low ends of academic ability, the gifted kids and the low performers, at least long enough to prepare for the dreaded yearly progress tests. Who benefits? The bulk of kids in-between, the so-called “kids on the bubble” of the bell curve between high and low achievers.

So says a study by University of Chicago economists Derek A. Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, which compared how Chicago’s public school students fared after the Bush initiative was enacted in 2002 with results of a similar high-stakes testing reform in 1998.

The results were convincingly consistent, said Mr. Neal as he unveiled the study Monday at the American Enterprise Institute. While students in the middle of the pack made the largest test-score gains, the bottom 20 percent made the least progress and, in some cases, actually lost ground. Depending on the subject matter, the top 10 percent of students made either no academic gains or smaller improvements than those in the middle.

Results for the least-able students were slightly better in the post-1998 reform period when standards were set at lower levels, Mr. Neal pointed out.

He concluded high-stakes tests provide a strong incentive for schools to practice “education triage” to boost their scores on state exams. They pass over students who appear to have the best chance of scoring well on their own and those who appear to have no chance and focus their attention on students in the middle.

Is he right? Mr. Neal’s findings were greeted with skepticism by Doug Mesecar, an official with the U.S. Education Department. They were preliminary findings, he pointed out, and we should not give too much weight to horror-story anecdotes from various schools, either.

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