Grading schools on a curve

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By Jeffry Gardner

Candidate and current President Barack Obama recently let 10 states off the educational hook, as it were, by waiving their need to follow the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements.
Eleven states wanted out of the legislation, but one lowly state was, er, left behind.  
Aside from this being another deliberate act by the Obama Administration to skirt Congress – a nasty habit that Americans are becoming enured to – a cynical person might take a look at the 10 states that got a pass and think, “Well, in an election year you’d probably want to make sure teachers and soccer moms in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee remember who grades their papers.
“New Mexico, however, is in the bag.”
That conclusion isn’t necessarily farfetched.  All 10 of the exempted states are vital to the president’s re-election effort.
 But right now, the Obama campaign considers New Mexico a foregone conclusion.
Aside from the politics, however, is the underlying bitterness public educators seem to have for NCLB. Yet, I recall clearly when the bill was passed. Fade back in time…
It’s early 2001, George W. Bush, not yet demonized by the left, emerges from meetings with Congressional Democrats united in the goal to return America to K-12 educational greatness.  
Bush proposed legislation that would require students to be able to read and write and do some simple math at their appropriate grade level by 2014. The bar was set absurdly high.
What many do not or want not to recall is uber-liberal Edward “Teddy” Kennedy emerging from the White House and declaring, “I love this W guy!”
I paraphrase. What Kennedy did say is that Bush was “serious” about helping poor and minority kids succeed and that (Bush) “is a man we can work with.”
Bush was serious about trying to help, which he naively translated into more tax dollars for a department – Education – that most conservatives then and now want shut down.
Fast forward and arrive at 2012, an election year and the popular spin that NCLB’s 2014 deadline was too ambitious.
No way we fix a system in 13 years that took, what, the last five decades to derail?
In that light, we come to New Mexico, where Gov. Susana Martinez and Public Education Secretary-Designee Hanna Skandera have figured out how to reverse the state’s failing schools epidemic.
Grade on a curve.
Nothing brings more joy to classroom hearts than the words, “We’ll grade this on a curve.”
Basically, the teacher knows that someone was going to beat the exam into a pulp, while everyone else will be abused by it. So the high grade’s tossed and those 77 per-centers, say, score A’s.  
Using the new system, of the possible 100 points, only four out of 827 schools scored in the 90s. Under the NCLB standard, 87% of our schools would have received failing notices.  
Ah, but under the new system, 73 schools received “A’s”.  The failure rate dropped to 11 percent. Whoopee!
Martinez and Skandera say that the new system, in part, gives educators and students a bit of hope.  Admittedly, no one likes to hear they’re not making the grade.
I also understand the political realities of trying to fix New Mexico public schools when all you’re going to do is butt heads with teachers’ unions and their allies.
After all, there’s a reason Skandera’s title is “Designee.” Senate Democrats refuse to give the candidate her day in court. Ultimately, though, the new school grading system sounds like painting over a rusted-out car.  You can cover over the rust, but eventually it will eat away at the body. Sadly, our schools are rusting away.  
Now, if we can just get that NCLB waiver.
.Jeffry Gardner
New Mexico News Service