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No child left behind?

The Center on Education Policy, a national nonprofit, recently found that student scores on state educational proficiency tests have gone up in recent years.

That’s the good news.

More controversial is the finding that because the federal No Child Left Behind law allows the individual states to set their own “proficiency” standards, those standards … um, vary.

A reading score that rates a fourth-grader “proficient” in Mississippi would be a failing score in Massachusetts, the Education Department reported Thursday.

(Massachusetts sets the proficiency score on its fourth-grade reading test just below the proficiency mark on the national test, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But a fourth-grader in Mississippi can be rated “proficient” with a state test score that is more than 70 points lower.)

Based on tests given in the 2004-05 school year, the Education Department report also found:

— Eighth-graders in North Carolina had to demonstrate the least knowledge to be considered proficient readers, while students in Wyoming had to show the most knowledge.

— Tennessee set the lowest bar on the fourth-grade math test, while Massachusetts set the highest one.

— In eighth-grade math, Missouri set the highest proficiency standard — 12 points above the national one. Tennessee’s was the lowest, 69 points below the national bar.

The report shows that Nevada sets fairly high proficiency standards for fourth-graders — behind only Massachusetts, South Carolina, Wyoming, Arkansas and Connecticut in reading, while Nevada’s standards rank 12th among the 50 states for mathematics.

That sounds good until we look for how many students actually meet those standards — about half, placing the state not last, but well back in the pack.

These findings — though completely predictable — have brought calls to write uniform national standards into the education law if and when No Child Left Behind is re-authorized.

But Congress is unlikely to go that far, reports The Associated Press, because the states still (quite rightly) see education as a fundamentally local prerogative.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington that advocates for poor and minority students, has recommended that if states significantly raise their standards, the government should reward them by loosening rules requiring all kids to be working on grade level by 2014 — a goal that is obviously harder to reach if the standards are higher.

But Education Secretary Margaret Spellings opposes any compromise that would move states away from the requirement that all students be at grade level by 2014.

The underlying problem — in addition to valid concerns that educational breadth is sacrificed when teachers “teach to the test” — is that while No Child Left Behind sounds admirably egalitarian, it really makes no sense to pretend that every child can or should be expected to master Latin and Greek, philosophy and physics and calculus, and leave school with an advanced degree.

Many American parents now harbor the notion that every child “deserves” a high school and college diploma, but such documents are meaningless unless they measure real work and mastery of material — and will quickly become worthless if the requirements to land one are so watered down that the least apt and attentive student can wake from his doze to find one tied to his toe.

What does “working at grade level” really mean, if the standards are watered down till parents are told that seventh-graders playing with blocks are “passing Algebra I”?

It is not “leaving a child behind” to acknowledge that children progress at different speeds. As a matter of fact, the temptation to lower the bar as a favor to the lowest achievers will only guarantee that it’s our brightest students — the ones we can least afford to lose, the ones who need to be encouraged to leap ahead if we are to retain our technological leadership — who will be “left behind,” offered no real challenge to which they can rise, treading water in a swamp of tedium.

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