"There is a zero percent chance that we will ever reach a 100 percent target," said Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. "But because the title of the law is so rhetorically brilliant, politicians are afraid to change this completely unrealistic standard. They don't want to be accused of leaving some children behind."
...critics face an uphill challenge because of the rhetorical power of the argument for a universal proficiency target and a deadline. Anything less, advocates say, will hurt children, especially society's most vulnerable: poor and minority students.
President Bush is pushing this year for reauthorization of one of his top domestic programs. In a joint House-Senate hearing yesterday, senior Democrats and Republicans said they would work toward renewal of the law. But in interviews in the days before the hearing, some key lawmakers said that universal proficiency is all but impossible to meet.
"The idea of 100 percent is, in any legislation, not achievable," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate education committee. "There isn't a member of Congress or a parent or a student that doesn't understand that."
Kennedy added that the law's universal proficiency standard served to inspire students and teachers. But "it's too early in the process to predict whether we'll consider changes" to the 2014 deadline, he said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary and supporter of the law, said Americans don't want politicians to lower standards.
"Are we going to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and say only 85 percent of men are created equal?" Alexander asked. "Most of our politics in America is about the disappointment of not meeting the high goals we set for ourselves."
...testing experts say there are vast academic differences among children of the same racial or socioeconomic background. Countries with far less racial diversity than the United States still find wide variations in student performance. Even in relatively homogenous Singapore, for example, a world leader in science and math tests, a quarter of the students tested are not proficient in math, and 49 percent fall short in science.
"Most people are afraid that once you acknowledge this variation, then you have to tolerate major inequities between black and white students," said Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University education professor. "That's not necessarily true, but that's why the political world does not really address the issue."
Although no major school system is known to have reached 100 percent proficiency, Education Department officials pointed to individual schools across the country that have reached the standard as evidence that it is possible. In Virginia, schools have achieved universal proficiency on reading and math tests 45 times since 2002, officials said.
The only school they cited in the Washington region as having met that mark was the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, a regional school with selective admissions. Principal Evan M. Glazer said his school, which has an elite reputation, was hardly a representative example. On whether the nation can replicate that success, Glazer said: "I don't think it's very realistic."
Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said it was "absurd" to expect total proficiency, especially when federal officials require immigrant children who have been in U.S. schools for little more than a year to meet the standard. His 164,000-student system, the largest in the Washington region, is sparring with the Education Department over the immigrant testing rule.