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One Reason (Among Many) That No Child Left Behind <em>Cannot</em> Work

You can have 100 percent proficiency or you can have a meaningful definition of proficient. You cannot have both.
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Back in the 1960's, people used to talk about the "veil of mystification" that governments would use to keep people from realizing the absurdity of some government policy. The phrase often comes to mind when I think about the No Child Left Behind law, especially the provision that requires 100 percent of all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Ain't gonna happen.

You can have 100 percent proficiency or you can have a meaningful definition of proficient. You cannot have both. Think about it. Whatever variable you choose to measure about us--height, weight, distance between pupils, time needed to run a mile--we vary. Ditto for proficiency, however defined. We usually vary in a regular way, lining up in the oft maligned bell-shaped curve. The shape of the curve isn't important, but the fact that we vary is. We could pass a law saying that all six graders must be X inches tall, but given the large differences among kids, not to mention differences in the onset of adolescent growth spurts, X would have to be a very small number.

The law effectively guarantees that we cannot obtain 100 percent proficiency because it requires that the tests that measure whether or not we are proficient be keyed to "challenging" standards. But challenging standards are those that, by definition, not everyone can meet. If everyone could, they wouldn't be challenging.

There's another problem: By defining achievement in terms of the percent attaining some level labeled "proficient," we're not actually measuring--we're counting. We're just setting up a barrier for people to jump over. We know how many got over it, but we have no idea how high the barrier really is or how high the kids actually jump.

An analogy: Imagine that to get on a particular ride at the state fair, a person has to be at least four feet tall. In this analogy, four feet tall is the equivalent of "proficient." After that, nothing counts. In this system, Jerry Bracey, Peter Dinklage and Yao Ming are all the same height--we all qualify to get on the ride. But if you got out a tape measure and actually measured our height, you'd find that Bracey is 5'11", actor Dinklage 4'6", and basketball all-star Yao is 7' 6." For the ride, though, we're all the same.

Simply counting how many kids get over the barrier can hide an increasing ethnic achievement gap. Here's a hypothetical situation, but I am confident something similar actually occurred in New York City last spring.


So...If we look at percent proficient from year 1 to year 2, black kids gain 10 percent on whites and the gap closes from 40 percent to 30 percent. But when we look at actual scores, we see that while the black students scored higher in year 2 than in year 1 (68 vs. 62), white students registered a much larger gain (92 up from 78). The score gap, shown in the far right column, actually increases from 16 to 24 points.

In conversation, New York Times reporter David Herszenhorn, said this appears to have happened in New York City. A lot of kids in slum areas were already scoring close to proficient and gained enough to get over the barrier so their percent proficient jumped a lot even though their scores didn't. Most suburban kids were already scoring high enough to pass the test so they didn't show much gain in pass rates. And no one was looking at the actual scores which, Herszenhorn told me, jumped a lot in the suburbs.

NCLB comes up for reauthorization in 2007. Its flaws have become apparent even to many of its supporters (see the December 9 post, "Things Fall Apart"), but reworking it will be contentious and controversial and will not likely happen before the elections of 2008. While we wait for those elections, more and more schools and districts will be labeled as failing, and penalized with increasingly severe sanctions. This will happen because each year as we approach the 100% requirement of 2014, a larger and larger proportion of students must be "proficient."

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