Globe Editorial

Obama’s education plan errs in abandoning ‘proficiency’ goal

February 3, 2010

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THE OBAMA administration is retreating from a deadline to bring every child in 98,000 public schools to academic proficiency by 2014. What was seen as an attainable goal in the Bush years is now a “utopian goal,’’ according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

There is plenty that Obama and Congress can do to improve the federal No Child Left Behind Law and its inflexible interpretation of the “adequate yearly progress’’ made by schools. But backing away from the goal that all students achieve proficiency on their state exams is a mistake in a field where nothing short of high-stakes testing grabs the attention of students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.

Before the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test became a requirement for graduation, only about half of the state’s 10th graders passed both the math and English portions on their first try. Students simply didn’t take the test seriously. But pass rates jumped to 68 percent for the first class to face the graduation requirement, the class of 2003, and have been on the rise ever since, now standing at 87 percent. The same types of pressure should motivate students to reach the next rung on the MCAS ladder - proficiency. They can push themselves to achieve higher levels, but not without a little fear of being left behind by their peers. And teachers work harder knowing what’s at stake for students.

The Obama administration wants to replace universal proficiency with a mandate for all students to leave high school “college or career ready.’’ What that means isn’t entirely clear yet. But it would be a setback for standards-based education in America if the new requirement relies heavily on so-called “21st century skills’’ - global awareness, media literacy, and critical thinking - that are now the rage in education circles.

Federal education officials are wise to move to create national education standards at a time when state curricula and assessments range from anemic to rigorous. And Duncan rightly places a premium on school districts that use student test data to evaluate teachers. But such efforts only reinforce the need to aim for academic proficiency, and not mere passing grades.

Massachusetts manages to promote proficiency without punishing students who can’t reach that grade on the challenging MCAS test. Schools are required to create specific “education proficiency plans’’ for such students that include intensive classes in areas of academic weakness. If students show good progress in these classes, they remain on track to graduate, even without achieving MCAS proficiency.

In Massachusetts, where students rank at or near the top of national assessments, educators regularly produce students who are “college or career ready.’’ The Obama administration could learn a thing or two by taking proficiency standards as seriously in Washington as they are taken here.

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