[N]o goal can be both challenging to and achievable by all students across the achievement distribution. Standards can either be minimal and present little challenge to typical students, or challenging and unattainable by below-average students. No standard can simultaneously do both—hence the oxymoron—but that is what the No Child Left Behind law requires.
Such an argument relies on language games and Rothstein's opinion that children cannot improve academically even if teaching is improved. Later in the article Rothstein let's us know what he thinks is possible to achieve.
We might, for example, expect students who today are at the 65th percentile of the test-score distribution to improve so that, at some future date, they perform similarly to students who are now at the 75th; students who today are at the 40th percentile to perform similarly to those who are now at the 50th; and students who are at the 15th percentile to perform similarly to those who are now at the 25th. Such goals create challenges for all students and express our intent that no child be left behind.Basically, Rothstein is saying that we can expect improvement of about ten percentage points or about 0.25 standard deviations through better teaching. Nonsense.
There is more than adequate research showing that we can reliably improve student performance by about a standard deviation, at least up until the end of elementary school. This means that a student performing at about the 20th percentile will perform as well as an average student today. Variation between children stays about the same, but the entire curve is shifted to the right. Then a state could play with the cut-scores and/or align the tests more closely with what is being taught and it's hard to see ho 90+% of kids cannot be made to perform proficiently on such a test.
And, since no current state exam (8th or 11th grade) tests anything that any well educated 8th grader should have mastered, schools have an additional six years of school to get kids to pass the 11th grade exam. That's six years to teach three years worth of material.
Rothstein conveniently reads too much into the definition of "challenging" standards. Most state tests today are simplistic, yet considered to be sufficiently "challenging" by DoE. Yes, I agree that the standards should be made more challenging for average and above students, but let's take this one step at a time. That fact of the matter is that standards are set sufficiently low that most, if not all, kids can meet them if they attend school regularly and are adequately taught.
Lastly, Rothstein doesn't seem to understand the concept, embodied in NAEP, that all kids can be proficient if they surpass the minimum proficiency level while preserving the innate variation between low and high performing students. High performing students will easily pass the test while lower performing students will likely struggle mightily to pass.
One day we'll hopefully raise the standards for our higher performers (a point SteveH makes all the time in the comments) to something approaching worlds class. That day couldn't come soon enough as far as I'm concerned. But such a raising of standards should not preclude schools from attaining the lower standards today and are certainly no reason for scrapping today's minimal accountability system.