Is bar set too high for schools?
Sacramento Bee
March 19, 2006

Story appeared on Page A3 of The Bee
Critics say lawmaker's push to change definition of 'proficient' amounts to lowering standards.
By Jim Sanders -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday,

Too many students fail to meet California's standard for proficiency, sparking a simple solution under consideration in the Capitol: redefine "proficient."

By changing a few words in state law, legislators could dramatically affect how the federal government rates the state's education system.

"I think it's a totally sensible thing to do," said Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.

Critics of Hancock's proposal, Assembly Bill 2975, say the state's goal should be to improve schools, not alter words.

Hancock counters that both are needed to avoid severe sanctions in coming years under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB.

"What all of this needs is for grown-up egos to be set aside and to focus on the young people," she said.

The California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators have taken no position on AB 2975, but they say Hancock has seized on a very real problem.

Jack O'Connell, state schools superintendent, opposes AB 2975.

"It's a measure that would have the net effect of watering down our standards," O'Connell said. "It takes us in the wrong direction."

"It's a terrible idea," added Jim Lanich of California Business for Education Excellence. "We should never back down from rigor and redraw targets. It's bad policy and it's bad for kids."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Teachers Association have taken no position.

AB 2975 targets a California academic standard, set years ago, that basically requires a proficient student to score on standardized tests at levels that show grade-level competence and, thus, skills necessary to attend college.

When the federal government adopted NCLB, it accepted each state's definition of "proficient" but required every student to reach that threshold in English and mathematics by 2014.

Thus the rub: States that set the bar low academically have a distinct advantage over California, whose high proficiency standard is a laudable but unrealistic mandate to apply universally to more than 6 million students of varying backgrounds, Hancock contends.

"Be real," she said. "This isn't 'Alice in Wonderland.'"

Less than half of California's students currently qualify as proficient - 40 percent of them in English-language arts and 38 percent of them in mathematics, state records show.

Under NCLB, sanctions are imposed on schools that receive federal funds for disadvantaged children and fail two consecutive years in meeting annual targets for the number of proficient children overall and in ethnic or other subgroups, such as English learners.

Penalties increase in severity over a five-year period, from allowing students to transfer at district expense to restructuring the faculty or administration of a targeted school.

AB 2975 would give California some "breathing room" to avoid sanctions and would eliminate a perverse incentive in the current system, Hancock said.

Because schools are judged by NCLB on the number of proficient students, the temptation is to focus attention on those closest to clearing that bar, not necessarily on the lowest-performing children, she said.

"(We must) create the best situation in which our teachers and principals can do their best work to engage these kids," she said.

Under AB 2975, proficient students need not necessarily perform at grade level. Rather, test scores must show that they are acquiring adequate skills, year by year, to pass the state's high school exit exam by the end of 12th grade.

Since California grants diplomas to students who pass the exit exam, it should consider those children proficient, Hancock contends.

The exit exam measures English-language arts at about the ninth-and 10th-grade levels, and mathematics at about the seventh-and eighth-grade levels, said Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.

Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor the Education Commission of the States keeps statistics on how California compares to other states in its definition of proficiency or its percentage of students meeting that standard.

But Kathy Christie, senior vice president of the Education Commission of the States, said states clearly differ in the rigor of their academic standards, their definition of proficiency, and in the standardized tests they use.

A report last year by California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office cited Texas as one state where the proficiency standard is relatively modest and high numbers of students - more than 80 percent - have met it.

State Sen. Jack Scott, an Altadena Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he conceptually supports AB 2975.

"I'm not trying to lower standards, but if I as a teacher gave a test that (a vast majority) of students failed, I'd think there was a little something wrong with my test," he said.

Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said California's definition of proficiency was "sort of a lofty goal" that never was intended to serve as a high-stakes mandate for every child.

"We think something ought to happen," Wells said of redefining proficiency. "It does look to us like taking it all the way down to the level of the high school exit exam might be overkill, but it's a good conversation to have."

O'Connell, state schools superintendent, agrees with Hancock that NCLB can result in schools being unfairly penalized based solely on proficiency statistics.

Rather than redefine proficiency, however, O'Connell said he is pushing for changes to federal law that would take into consideration a school's year-to-year progress, which is the top priority of California's own accountability program, the Academic Performance Index.

"We know that we're challenging students," O'Connell said of the proficiency standard. "But it's in their best interest. Bottom line, students must have the skills not only to survive in the new economy, but to thrive in it."

Dave Gordon, Sacramento County schools superintendent, urged legislators to stay the course.

"In my career, I've found that kids will rise to your standards," he said.

About the writer: The Bee's Jim Sanders can be reached at (916) 326-5538 or