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Editorial: AYP results losing power

It's funny and touching when Lake Wobegone's creator says, "all the children are above average" in the fictional town. But when test scores come back with that finding in the real world, people wonder if there's something wrong with the test.

Likewise when the scores say all the children are below average. Such a test would lose its credibility if those results came back year after year. And that's the problem with No Child Left Behind's measurement of Adequate Yearly Progress.

Schools can be improved, without a doubt. But a measurement that suggests two-thirds of them are failing strains credibility. It tells parents nothing useful, in part because its expectations -- 100 percent of students reaching grade-level proficiency in reading and math by 2013-14? Really? -- are utopian.

So, the fact that a district fails to meet AYP gets ignored, in part because that district's parents simply disagree with the judgment and in part because so many other districts are "failing" as well. That's no way to run an evaluation scheme.

The "No Child Left Behind" K-12 reform has done a lot of good. It insists on measurement and accountability, and it holds schools and districts responsible for results.

That focus has re-centered American schools on the fundamentals -- on striving for, if not fully achieving, solid reading and math skills across the student population.

Somehow, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education must develop a more realistic set of expectations. This need not and should not mean dumbing down the tests.

But expecting dramatic progress across all student populations without exception and year after year is expecting too much. In education as in everything else, early gains tend to be easy, but later improvements run up against the law of diminishing returns.

No Child needs to acknowledge this. It needs more realistic definitions of progress, and its goals need to be ones that well-led and hardworking districts can and routinely do meet.

Otherwise, districts, schools and parents alike will stop caring about the annual results, as they've already started to do. And that threatens to leave American classrooms as unaccountable as they were before No Child came on line.