Beginning in the 2005–6 school year, states will be required to test all students in grades 3–8 in reading and mathematics and to make "adequate yearly progress" to get all students to a proficient level of achievement within twelve years. These are the most important provisions of the "No Child Left Behind" Act, passed by Congress earlier this year, a compromise with President Bush's original plan.
This significant act places the federal government squarely behind testing and accountability on a nationwide basis. Most states will have to beef up their testing systems substantially to track student progress from grade 3 through grade 8.
This important act, however, is jeopardized by its timetable for achieving results. Congress and the president took a full year to agree that the country could wait fifteen years for all students to achieve minimum proficiency. This timetable implicitly acknowledges that many of America's school systems have no hope of improving in any reasonable timeframe.
The most telling statistics are those on America's fifty largest public school systems. These systems range from New York City, with more than one million students, to systems such as Denver, Colorado, with just over 70,000 students. In between are large countywide systems such as Prince George's County, Maryland. Nearly a third of America's young people attend schools in these systems.
Over the last three years, the average rate of improvement of these systems on tests measuring whether students reach a proficient level of achievement (criterion-referenced) has been only 2.4 percent a year. At that rate, and with the current level of proficiency at less than 50 percent, it will be twenty-five years until those systems reach 100 percent! Large districts with high poverty levels will need thirty years to hit the federal target. Finally, eleven large systems have rates of improvement of less than 1 percent—putting 100 percent proficiency a half century in the future.
The same pattern holds for systems using tests that measure students in percentiles against a national sample of students (norm-referenced) where the average rate of gain in the fifty largest systems is 1.3 percentiles per year. If we define the fiftieth percentile as a measure of proficiency and assume that a district will achieve full proficiency when its average reaches the seventy-fifth percentile, the largest districtswould require another twenty-five years to achieve the federal target—and high-poverty districts would take thirty-five years.
The progress of America's largest school systems makes a federal goal of fifteen years look ambitious. But where is the nation's sense of urgency? Twenty-five to fifty years waiting for no child to be left behind means several lost generations. Progress need not be this slow. Every year hundreds of schools show that students can achieve proficiency in a short time. At Edison Schools, whose 75,000 students make it the forty-second-largest system, the average test score gains have been 5.7 and 4.7 points per year on criterion-and norm-referenced tests, respectively. The nation ought to demand that all school systems make this kind of progress.