- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002


Education Secretary Rod Paige this week used a sternly worded letter to warn school districts nationwide not to lower their academic standards, saying those who do are "the enemies of equal justice and equal opportunity."

While praising states that are working to implement the "No Child Left Behind" reforms sought by President Bush and passed by Congress, Mr. Paige called those resisting the reforms "apologists for failure" and predicted "they will not succeed."

Wednesday's letter, one of several Mr. Paige has dispatched over the past few months, was the most strongly worded yet, suggesting that federal officials will keep tabs on states that lower standards so more students can be labeled "proficient."

The law singles out schools with high numbers of students whose basic math and reading skills are substandard, but lets states decide what those standards will be.

Mr. Paige has said that giving a national skills test, the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, will show which states' standards are low, although the law attaches no penalties to low NAEP scores.

Education Department officials have said the public embarrassment of low NAEP scores could urge states to raise their standards.

But several state education officials say the new law already punishes states with high standards, forcing them to offer school transfers and expensive tutoring using federal funds that would otherwise go to classrooms.

For instance, in Texas, which has 4.1 million students, state officials there have identified only 46 underperforming schools. But Michigan, with only 1.7 million students and higher standards, has 1,513 underperforming schools.

"There are states, like Michigan, that don't see that they can comply with it," said Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

"It was something that we almost anticipated, because there are such differences in state standards," she said. "We've got one federal law, but we've got 50 state standards."

Miss Welburn said she knows of no state officials who are consciously lowering standards, but added, "They certainly are terrified that they're going to lose federal dollars if they can't fully comply with the law."

Ross Wiener, director of policy for the Education Trust, a Washington organization that advocates for urban and minority students, said Mr. Paige's letter sends a clear signal that the federal government will monitor state standards.

"States set their standards, and this law says we've got to try ways we haven't before to help kids meet those standards," Mr. Wiener said. "The secretary is right in acknowledging it's hard work. It's not going to be easy, but it's important work."

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