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States’ school standards too varied to fit NCLB’s aims

Citizen Staff Writer
Our Opinion

Schools that fail to make the grade under No Child Left Behind in many states can skate through in Arizona, where standards are easy, a new study shows.

And that wide disparity in state standards – from easy Arizona to rigorous Massachusetts – underscores why NCLB doesn’t really provide accountability nationwide.

Results from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute study were released Thursday, just as a $5 billion incentive fund was included in the new economic stimulus bill to reward states for boosting standards and the quality of state tests.

Arizona’s standards could use some boosting, especially in reading, where proficiency in grades three through five is set in the 25th percentile.

Arizona also uses a generous margin of error, at 99 percent compared with 95 percent in most other states.

Now new Education Secretary Arne Duncan is proposing common state standards, saying “50 different goal posts doesn’t make sense. A high school diploma needs to mean something, no matter where it’s from.”

We agree, and we are heartened that Duncan and President Obama share our concerns about NCLB.

Arizona’s example illustrates the good and the bad with the 2001 act.

NCLB’s chief goal was to eradicate educational disparities within and between the states, using “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) checks at schools to bring things in line.

In Arizona, schools with high test score averages previously could have masked their subgroups of low-performing students. Now, pockets of students disaggregated by race, income, etc., show up when scores are low.

On the other hand, Arizona schools with fewer such subgroups are more likely to make AYP, while those with lots of subgroups are not.

As the Fordham study asks about Arizona, “Does it make sense that having fewer subgroups enhances the likelihood of making AYP? Is it ‘fair’ for a state to have such generous margins of error and low elementary cut scores? Does it make sense that the size of a school’s enrollment has so much influence over making AYP?”

We are heartened that these questions and this study have emerged as a new administration casts a critical and constructive eye on NCLB.

Obama has echoed concerns about the costs of NCLB mandates and the disparities in standardized tests.

Now Fordham’s study highlights the equally yawning disparities in the standards themselves.

Duncan rightly recognizes that “we are lying to children and families” by saying they meet standards when, in reality, they could not succeed in a good university. We hope the new administration will replace NCLB with reforms that work, including consistently rigorous standards and tests.

Replace NCLB with reforms that work, using high standards and rigorous tests that provide consistency nationwide.

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