- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2011

A group of top business leaders warned in a new report Thursday that U.S. schools have set a standard for their students that’s too low and that subpar expectations put the country in danger of falling even further behind other nations in reading and math proficiency.

The survey by Change the Equation, a coalition of educators and CEOs of companies that includes Time Warner, Xerox and ExxonMobil, found that while students in many schools meet the benchmarks set by their states, those thresholds fall far below national levels set by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Education Program (NAEP).

Craig R. Barrett, retired CEO of the Intel Corporation and chairman of Change the Equation, said he has heard policymakers sounding the alarm about the nation’s schools since the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

“It’s a frustration that in 53 years, not a damn thing has happened,” he said.

Linda P. Rosen, Change the Equation CEO, said the report was intended to “correct the record” on science, technology, engineering and mathematics proficiency among the nation’s youth.

“Many states have set the bar on their state tests so low that the proficiency [level] has almost no meaning,” she said in a briefing at the National Press Club.

Colorado, for example, reported that 70 percent of its fourth-graders and half of its eighth-graders are proficient in math. But when NAEP standards are applied, only 45 percent of fourth-graders and 40 percent of eighth-graders hit the mark, according to the report.

In Hawaii, 50 percent of fourth-graders hit the state’s math threshold, but only 37 percent meet NAEP guidelines. In Washington, D.C., 42 percent of eighth-graders satisfy local benchmarks while only 11 percent clear the bar set by the federal government.

The disconnect has gotten so bad that the Education Department estimates that this year 82 percent of school districts will be “failing” under guidelines set up by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, even as many states report the majority of their students are doing well.

The Obama administration, which is negotiating with Congress on an overhaul of the No Child law this year, admits a tough road lies ahead.

“We have a long way to go,” said Carl Wieman, the White House’s associate director for science, who also spoke at Thursday’s event.

In urban areas, the proficiency numbers get even more grim. Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents, which oversees education policy statewide, said only 19 percent of fourth-graders in large cities are proficient in science. Just 17 percent are proficient in math, she said.

What’s worse, there are no reliable standards nationwide to measure proficiency among high school seniors, meaning policymakers and educators often simply don’t know how prepared graduates are for college, according to the report.

Change the Equation argues a careful balance between freedom and accountability is a big part of the solution. It encourages districts nationwide to adopt “core” curricula so students in all corners of the country get the same quality education.

While some standardized tests are necessary, the organization argues that districts must also have the ability to encourage innovation in classrooms and not force teachers to prepare students only for written proficiency exams.

Full results for all states and Washington, D.C., are available at changetheequation.org.

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