Don’t leave the children behind

The 5-year-old No Child Left Behind Act is relatively simple as federal laws go. School districts must test their students annually in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. And they must show improving proficiency across all demographic groups, with the perhaps-unreachable aim of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

There has been progress under the law, but benchmarks like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fairly called the nation’s report card, show that it has been spotty and that some jurisdictions are showing compliance by dumbing down their tests.

Critics complain that the act encourages “teaching to the test” and too much concentration on reading and math to the exclusion of subjects that aren’t tested, like science, history, art, music and physical education. There’s evidence that this is so, with the non-tested subjects being scanted by about a half-hour a day.

NCLB is up for reauthorization in Congress and lawmakers, including some of the law’s original drafters, are talking about modifying it so that proficiency in math and reading would not be the sole standard of school performance. Other indicators would be allowed, like scores in other subjects, graduation rates and participation in college-preparatory and advance-placement classes.

As attractive as these indicators might sound, they would dilute the purpose of the law to where ultimately the standards become the usual educational mush. Expanding the number of indicators would make side-by-side comparisons of school districts difficult.

Testing in only the two most critical subjects has the virtue of simplicity. It seems as if major educational reforms come along every few years or so, and none of them seems to last. A child who encountered NCLB in third grade is just now entering eighth grade, still a little soon to get a fix on the law’s effectiveness.

Conservatives complain that NCLB marked an ominous intrusion of the federal government into what has been traditionally a state and local responsibility. Broadening the law to include more subjects, graduate rates and the school curriculum marks a significantly greater intrusion.

With the exception of some minor tweaking, Congress should stick with the law as is through at least another five-year cycle.