Our Voice: No Child Left Behind needs a reasonable replacement

Setting high standards for student achievement is great as long as the goals are realistically attainable.

The problem with the federal No Child Left Behind Act is the bar has been set so far out of reach even high quality school districts can’t possibly touch it.

And while everyone knows this, those who had the power to rewrite this flawed legislation never got around to it. So for years, school districts around the country, including those in the Mid-Columbia, have been labeled failures despite being considered successful by state officials and their own communities.

Sacajawea Elementary School in Richland is the most recent local example of this ironic circumstance. It was listed this fall along with 54 other elementary schools across Washington to be a “School of Distinction” by the Center for Educational Excellence. This means it is ranked in the top 5 percent of the state for improvements in student performance in math and reading.

It is the second straight year Sacajawea Elementary has received this honor. Yet, according to federal guidelines, Sacajawea Elementary is a “failing” school along with several others in the Tri-City area. It was among four elementary schools in Richland, five elementary schools and a middle school in Kennewick and all Pasco schools that were marked with the failure label based on federal rules.

That a school can be considered among the top in the state and still be designated as under-achieving by the federal government emphasizes the need to overhaul NCLB as quickly as possible.

Part of the issue is that NCLB requires adequate yearly progress and has a goal of all students being proficient in math and reading. The reality, however, is that there are always variables and results tend to dip from time to time, even if they are high. Schools can make great gains in test scores, but if they aren’t large enough, they can still be considered as “failing.” And getting 100 percent success rate in all categories is simply not realistic.

Lowering standards is not an option, but there needs to be a more reasonable way to determine how well schools are doing.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the new incoming chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says he will make rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a priority. He also said he wants to return more control of public schools over to local communities.

We hope he sticks to his pledge. We also hope Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is the probable Democratic leader on this same committee, will work with Alexander to change the law, especially since our state was the first to lose its waiver for not fully complying with NCLB. Washington lost it after failing to require teacher evaluations be tied to test scores, resulting in the loss of control of almost $40 million in federal money.

This disastrous experiment needs to find its way to the scrap pile and a new, more reasonable federal education plan should take its place. It’s clear the biggest failure of NCLB is the act itself and not the schools it punishes.