Fix or scrap NCLB law

The Kansas State Board of Education is justified in seeking a temporary waiver from requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. But what’s really needed is for Congress to fix or scrap the unrealistic law.

State board chairman David Dennis of Wichita sent a letter last month to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan asking for the waiver. Kansas wants the annual targets for reading and math tests to be held at 2009-10 levels until it can implement new uniform achievement standards.

“Making the transition to the more rigorous Common Core Standards, as well as the new assessments, will require a great deal of effort and time on the part of Kansas educators,” Dennis wrote. “If their accountability targets could remain consistent, but still challenging, over that course of time, it would be of tremendous benefit to them and to our state.”

Under the NCLB law, districts are required each year to increase the percentages of students who are proficient in reading and math. By the 2013-14 year, 100 percent of students are supposed to be proficient.

But 100 percent proficiency is statistically impossible. Some students may have learning or language challenges that keep them from meeting the standard. Some students just don’t care, no matter how hard teachers try.

“You are never going to achieve 100 percent,” Dennis told KSN, Channel 3. “Our schools are now devoting an awful lot of time and energy trying to chase an elusive goal.”

Already, 254 of 1,380 Kansas schools, or 18 percent, aren’t hitting their annual performance targets. Nationally, 33 percent of schools failed to hit the annual goals in 2008-09, the most recent numbers available, according to the Center on Education Policy.

“What Kansas is proposing makes sense,” Jack Jennings, the center’s president, told Associated Press. But he doubts that Duncan will grant the waiver, because the education secretary wants to keep pressure on Congress to reauthorize the law.

On the other hand, the U.S. Education Department granted the McPherson school district a waiver last week to enact its own testing standards. Rather than rely on state testing, McPherson will use assessments developed by ACT that measure whether students are ready for college or careers.

The NCLB law has focused attention and resources on groups of children previously left behind, which is good. And the annual testing allows parents and officials to compare schools and districts, which is helpful. But the 100 percent mandate is unrealistic and, ultimately, counterproductive.

Congress needs to either scrap the law or loosen its mandate and grant states and schools more flexibility. In the meantime, Kansas schools shouldn’t have to keep chasing an impossible standard.