OK, first things first. I want everyone to know that I tried. I did. In writing a story that highlights the vast variations in state standards, I really tried to give No Child Left Behind, its principles and its accountability, the benefit of my doubt. I even tried to be optimistic.
I tried. I failed, much like I was unable to stop myself from jaywalking at the recent NECC show in Seattle (How does a city get everyone to buy into waiting for the light even when there's no traffic?). Ultimately I have to say that applying the penalties of NCLB to an uneven landscape doesn't make sense. As the two independent studies referred to in my article ("A Most Uneven Playing Field," p. 24) show, standards between states have significant differences. This isn't a huge surprise, and it certainly has been the case for years. The difference now is NCLB. The federal law allows states to set their own standards (with federal approval), which is fine. But it levies penalties based on how states, districts and schools fare against these different standards. Simply put, that's unfair.
And since you'll never catch me arguing for a national curriculum, I will argue against a one-size-fits-all penalty. As the studies I quote show, failing students in one state would be passing students if they lived in another state.
Time and again, while completing my story, I asked people why state educators wouldn't deliberately set low standards, even if they strove for high achievement. In my admittedly pessimistic view, this way they could avoid penalties while striving to reach the high levels they wanted. The answers given me weren't persuasive. They ranged from, "Nobody would do that," to "That wouldn't be following the intent of NCLB, and it is the law."
Well, apparently I'm crossing against traffic again, but it has already happened. My own state, Connecticut, as well as Colorado and Louisiana, have already altered how they judge students to be proficient. Each state had set its standards before NCLB. Now that these states face penalties under the federal law, I don't consider it wrong to change a high standard to make it more in line with other states.
I applaud the law for making sure that each subgroup of children is expected to make adequate yearly progress. I criticize the law for the way it seeks to dole out penalties based on an uneven playing field.