The headline in Sunday's edition — "Local schools fail to reach standards on Benchmark tests" — was accurate. "Twenty-three out of 26 Jefferson County schools failed to meet federally mandated standards for Benchmark test-score improvements for the 2010-2011 school year..." the story began.

The headline in Sunday’s edition — “Local schools fail to reach standards on Benchmark tests” — was accurate. “Twenty-three out of 26 Jefferson County schools failed to meet federally mandated standards for Benchmark test-score improvements for the 2010-2011 school year…” the story began.

Don’t blame the reporter who wrote the story or the copy editor who wrote the headline. Instead, question the wisdom of the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s testing standards.

We don’t reside in mythical Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average. Some are, some are not.

By the standards of the decade-old law, 88 percent of Jefferson County’s schools are not making “adequate yearly progress.” That’s not an accurate picture of the schools in the county.

Parents deserve a clear picture of who’s making progress and who’s not. If the schools are failing, steps can be taken to correct the problems. However, as we examine standardized test scores and graduation rates, we see the shadow of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which Congress has failed to revamp since it came up for reauthorization in 2007.

No Child Left Behind requires that schools show improvements annually on the Augmented Benchmark Exams in math and literacy. The tests were given to third- through eighth-graders in April.

For the 2010-2011 school year, 73-78 percent — depending on the subject matter — of a school’s students must score proficient or higher on the tests for the school to meet the standards, referred to as “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP.”

To make AYP under the act, schools must satisfy ever-increasing performance targets. AYP measures the percentage of making or exceeding target scores on standardized tests and graduation rates regardless of students’ growth. If little La’Tonya or Jerome grow two grade levels during a single school year, but their test score is still below the NCLB-set target, his or her scores count against the school’s AYP rating.

Schools that fail to make AYP for two consecutive years in the same category are classified as “Needs Improvement.” These schools can be required to provide supplemental education, or giving students the option to transfer into another public school that made AYP or charter school.

Schools that fail to make AYP over longer periods of time can be forced to restructure, including replacing the principal and teachers.

Built into the act is a requirement that all students must be proficient in the test subjects by 2014. Since the goal is unrealistic, its mandated targets have continued to increase annually. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan projected in March that 82 per cent of all schools would be deemed as failing by 2012.

Schools are also judged on how well students in “subpopulations” score. Before they were labeled “subpopulation” the term was “subgroups.” Subpopulations must reach the required standards as other students enrolled in the same school.

Subpopulations may include whites, blacks and Hispanics, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities and students whose native language is not English.

Five students in a subpopulation in one grade might score below basic in a math test administered at an elementary school, while five score basic and 70 score proficient or advanced. The whole school is cited for failure to make AYP even though the majority of subpopulations tested proficient or better.

The state plans to apply early next year for a waiver from some of the act’s requirements in exchange for innovative plans to raise achievement levels.

Realistic but rigorous achievement goals we should expect, while providing innovative help to students struggling in one or more subjects.