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How to Leave No Child Behind

President Bush has made education reform his top domestic priority after tax-cutting, but some of his cornerstone proposals are being reshaped -- some for the better, some for the worse -- as the education package moves through Congress.

One of the first elements to go was an ill- considered voucher provision, which would have allowed parents from failing schools to use public money on private-school tuition. Both Democrats and some Republicans rightly viewed this provision as a dangerous drain on public school resources.

Another element that ought to go is the so- called "straight A's" provision, which would allow states to redistribute federal education dollars that were historically aimed at the nation's poorest schools. This onerous provision would let states do as they wish with this money, even spending it on the affluent if they choose to. It is a bad idea that should be left out of the final legislation.

The heart of the Bush education plan -- and potentially its most valuable contribution -- is a requirement that the states conduct annual testing in reading and math for students in grades three through eight. Such tests would allow parents to learn how their children's schools stacked up against others in the state, and how well their children were progressing from year to year.

Ideally, all states should use the same national tests to ensure that they all impose the same exacting standards and to facilitate state-by-state comparisons. But neither the Bush plan nor the pending bills dare go that far. So the best way to make sure the state tests are rigorous and meaningful is to require that they be judged against a common benchmark like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a respected test already given to fourth and eighth graders in more than 40 states. The Senate bill would do just that. But the House version would render the benchmarking effort meaningless by permitting states to use less- demanding tests as a yardstick. If states can choose their own benchmark tests, some will inevitably choose dumbed-down tests that show them in the best light.

The House bill also allows states to change their tests from one year to the next, making it impossible to determine if students are progressing at all. The administration has specifically argued for a testing plan that would break out test scores by race and ethnicity, so that states could be held accountable for closing the achievement gap between rich and poor children. But the House version would let states use different tests from district to district, making it impossible to determine whether any such gaps were being closed.

Some in Congress fear that even the weak federal testing mandates under discussion would impinge on the authority of the states. But Rod Paige, the secretary of education, was on the mark when he described those who opposed annual testing as apologists "for a broken system of education that dismisses certain children and classes of children as unteachable."

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