Schools chief happy, but frets about future

| August 16, 2006

California's chief of schools said he was "extremely pleased" with the upward progress of student scores on the state's annual standardized tests, but also noted that it would be "very difficult" for every one of the state's 4.7 million students to pass the grade level test by 2014, a federal goal.

According to data released Tuesday by the California Department of Education, less than half of the state's public school students — 42 percent in English Language Arts and 40 percent in mathematics — have reached "proficient" or above on the grade-level tests that make up the state's Standardized Testing and Reporting program.

Those percentages, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, are part of a "modest trajectory for increased student achievement," in California's public schools since 2003, when all state tests were completely aligned to state standards. That was two years after Congress passed the federal education law No Child Left Behind, or NCLB. Championed by President Bush as a way to hold schools accountable, the stated goal of NCLB is to have every child passing grade level tests in English and math by 2014.

To that end, schools must meet rigid standards of improvement each year, or face escalating penalties, which could include replacing the staff or turning operations of the school over to the state or a private company.

O'Connell said that while he believed 100 percent proficiency is "a goal we should all have," he expressed concern with the "consequences of an unrealistic measure of that nature."

He disagreed with accountability systems that used a "heavy handed stick" approach, noting that he preferred working collaboratively with schools, using the incentive of the "carrot," to boost student

achievement.

Eric Earling, a regional representative for the U.S. Department of Education, said that although some have questioned the practicality of NCLB's goals, "educators and students are stepping up to the challenge in many parts of the country."

Nonetheless, Congress will "likely address that 100 percent issue when it reauthorizes No Child Left Behind, whether that occurs in 2007, as scheduled, or at a later date," added Earling.

In speaking with members of the media Tuesday, O'Connell noted that "reforming an entire education system is slow, difficult work," and that, despite state averages that show overall progress, he was "disheartened" by the fact that African American, Hispanic and low-income students lagged far behind their white and Asian peers, what is often called "the achievement gap."

"Clearly, we must work harder, faster, and with more focus to close the achievementgap," O'Connell said.

beslinger@examiner.com

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