- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2011

“Proficient” is relative.

Across the country, student performance on standardized reading and math tests is worse than most states lead parents to believe, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the federal Education Department.

Under current law, states set their own benchmarks for student proficiency, but those bars are often far below the standards used by the federal government. Only Massachusetts meets the federal threshold, according to the report.

“Low expectations are the norm. Setting 50 different bars in 50 different states is tremendously problematic. That’s actually lying to parents,” Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, said while speaking at a press conference Wednesday at the National Press Club, where the report was released.

The survey examined data from 2005 to 2009 and found that many states decreased proficiency standards over that four-year span. The trend has lessened in recent years; from 2007 to 2009, only South Carolina and New Jersey lowered the bar, while some states set it higher.

NCES’ report cites Tennessee as having the lowest thresholds, but over the past two years, the state has reversed course and raised its standards significantly, drawing praise from Mr. Duncan for finally deciding to “tell the truth” to students, parents, teachers and officials.

But the truth hurts. By raising the bar, Tennessee now reports fewer students proficient in reading and math. Under the old standard, the state reported that 91 percent of its students were proficient in math. After the change, only 34 percent fall into that category.

“That’s a very tough message. But guess what? It’s the truth,” Mr. Duncan said during a speech in Tennessee on Wednesday, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

“We need to reward those states that are showing courage … and give them the room to move,” he added.

Mr. Duncan plans to reward states such as Tennessee with waivers from the No Child Left Behind education law, which remains the law of the land despite widespread agreement it isn’t working.

Under the law, schools are labeled as “failing” if they don’t meet the state-established benchmarks in reading and math. States such as Tennessee that summon the political courage to raise standards are punished under NCLB by having more of their schools dumped into the “failing” category.

Even the best-performing states are suffering. Half of all schools in Massachusetts, the only state with standards aligned with federal guidelines, are technically failing.

“But those are not failing schools,” Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said at Wednesday’s press conference, adding that many of those schools make significant progress year-to-year, but still fall short of the mark.

NCLB calls for 100 percent of students in all states to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, and more than 80 percent of schools nationwide will likely be “failing” this year, according to Mr. Duncan.

The system also does a disservice to students, Mr. Chester said. A student in Georgia or Alabama, where state standards are near the bottom of the list, could be considered proficient in math, but if the same student moved to Missouri or Massachusetts and posted an identical score on standardized tests, he would be labeled as having a less-than-basic grasp of the subject.

By offering waivers and removing the “failing” school label, the Education Department hopes to give states more flexibility and encourage them to raise standards by removing the risk they’ll be stigmatized by low test scores.

But raising the bar isn’t the cure-all for states and school districts: Their students should be expected to reach it.

“Holding high expectations, of course, doesn’t magically make them come true,” Ms. Weiss said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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