Column: No child? No way, many say

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

No child left behind.

Has a nice ring, doesn’t it? After all, the opposite image isn’t very attractive: millions of kids marching merrily into the future and one cheerless orphan lagging back, tears welling in his enormous eyes.

Turning it into law is a different matter.

No Child Left Behind is, of course, last year’s federal education bill, which President Bush and a bipartisan group in Congress passed into law. It requires schools to have a certain percentage of their students pass their states’ standardized tests. (In Texas, that’s the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.)

The law’s big requirement: In 2013-14, every school in America is supposed to have a 100 percent passing rate on its state test. Not one student will fail; no child will be left behind.

Optimism is a wonderful thing — but 100 percent, within the next 11 years?

After all, even the Highland Park district has never had a 100 percent passing rate.

“It hurts me to say it, but I cannot see 100 percent as a realistic goal,” said Marlin Stanberry, principal at Colleyville Heritage High School, where passing rates in the 90s are common. “There are always going to be challenges in a kid’s life beyond what a school can control.”

“It’s completely unattainable, and everybody knows it,” said Monty Neill, who heads FairTest, an anti-testing group in Boston. “I don’t think there’s anybody who seriously thinks it can be reached.”

But No Child isn’t just a distant fanciful wish. There are real consequences for schools that fall short, from a loss of federal money to dissolution.

And that is leading state officials to act like procrastinating students who push the hard work off until the last minute.

Some context: When test scores increase, they do so slowly. Since 1994, the passing rate on the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the predecessor of TAKS, never jumped more than three points in a given year.

No Child Left Behind requires Texas to increase its reading TAKS passing rate from last year’s estimated 46.8 percent to 100 percent in 2013-14. State officials could accomplish that by raising those passing rates by about 5 percentage points every year.

But take a look at the chart. Notice that passing rates required by the state under the law go up only about 2.5 percentage points a year until 2010. Then notice how Texas children suddenly become superhuman around 2011 — the required passing rate jumps almost 9 percentage points a year until it gets to 100.

Increases that size have never been accomplished on any scale. Texas, like a few other states that are setting up similar systems, is pushing all the hard work back a decade.

It’s like a balloon mortgage. Your payments are low and bearable for a few years. But at the end of it, you’ve got to write an awfully big check.

“Governors and chief state school officers don’t serve forever,” said Chester Finn, a conservative advocate of testing and head of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education reform group. “They’re saving the hard work for their successors.”

Why’s Texas doing it? State officials say it’s because kids will have a tough time adjusting to the TAKS, and it’ll take time to push scores up. But there wasn’t any such pattern on the TAAS — scores went up more in the test’s early years and less later.

See, something else will happen between now and those huge gains. In 2008, No Child Left Behind expires, and Congress will have to pass a new law.

“Perhaps these states are hoping things will be relaxed and modified, that Congress will change its mind,” said Sandy Kress, the former Dallas school board president and Bush adviser who was one of No Child Left Behind’s architects.

By 2008, tens of thousands of American schools will be declared “failing” by No Child Left Behind. They’ll be facing hard sanctions, financial and otherwise. Some members of Congress will probably be sympathetic to relaxing that hard 100 percent goal.

It appears Texas is making a high-stakes bet — putting off its homework in hopes that the teacher will decide it was optional after all. If they’re right, everything will work out OK.

If they’re wrong, Texas kids will be looking at a steep climb in a few years.

Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The Dallas Morning News. Thinking About Education, a column by the newspaper’s education staff, runs each Monday in the Metropolitan section.