WASHINGTON -- The No Child Left Behind law is leaving too many children behind. Why? Maybe we're setting our standards too high.
That startling possibility comes from two University of Chicago economists as Congress begins debate on the reauthorization of the 5-year-old law.
At the center of the complicated debate is a simple goal: Every child in the nation should be "proficient" in math and reading by 2014.
I don't think that's an unreasonable goal, depending on how high you set the bar for proficient.
Can we say, for starters, that kids who act in good faith to complete their schools' required courses should at least be able to read their diplomas when they leave high school? Or make change at a cash register? That shouldn't be too much to ask. Yet for too long it has been too much for some schools to provide.
After all, if you're looking for social payback, consider this: Illiteracy may be the biggest contributing factor to street crime, judging by the high percentage of illiterates incarcerated in our bloated prisons. In today's world, there's not much left for a kid who can't read, do math or win a professional sports contract.
If no one argues with the worthiness of President Bush's goal, it seems everyone argues about the best way to get there.
Students in schools that fail to show enough progress on state tests over a two-year period can transfer to another school that is making faster progress. Schools that perform really poorly can be shut down. Of course, some schools need to be shut down. But pressure is being put on all of them to show progress.
Even schools with superior reputations can find themselves penalized in various ways if they fail to show enough progress. This has led to numerous reports of teachers forced to interrupt normal classroom work to "teach to the tests" given by states to measure student progress.
Now a new university study lends credence to the common perception that the No Child Left Behind law may be leaving behind students at the high and low ends of academic ability, the gifted kids and the low performers.
Who benefits? The bulk of children in the middle, the "kids on the bubble" of the bell curve between high and low achievers. So says a study by University of Chicago economists Derek A. Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. The study compared how Chicago's public school students fared after the Bush initiative was passed in 2002 with results of a similar high-stakes testing reform in 1998.
The results were convincingly consistent, said Mr. Neal. While students in the middle of the pack made the largest test-score gains, the bottom 20 percent made the least progress and, in some cases, lost ground. Depending on the subject matter, the top 10 percent of students made either no academic gains or smaller improvements than those in the middle.
Results for the least-able students were slightly better in the post-1998 reform period when standards were set at lower levels, Mr. Neal pointed out.
Mr. Neal concluded that high-stakes tests provide a strong incentive for schools to practice "education triage" to boost their students' scores on state exams. Teachers pass over students who appear to have the best chance of scoring well on their own and those who appear to have no chance. They focus their attention on students in the middle.
Is he right? Mr. Neal's findings were greeted with skepticism by Doug Mesecar, an official with the U.S. Education Department. They were preliminary findings, he pointed out, and we should not give too much weight to horror-story anecdotes from some schools.
But Mr. Neal's paper does raise a disturbing point. The one-size-fits-all proficiency tests will make schools more accountable, but they may get in the way of help for kids who need help the most.
If members of Congress are serious about reaching the noble goals set by the president's initiative, they should consider some triage of their own. Provide incentives and, I hope, funding for schools to target help to the low achievers - before they get left behind again.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.