Relief from red tape

The "one size fits all" approach to assessing the performance of different schools never has made much sense. Now, though, there is a chance that South Carolina will get some relief from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

The NCLB law requires schools nationwide to reach milestones for achievement each year. All schools must show "adequate yearly progress" under uniform standards established by the states.

South Carolina's standards are considered among the highest of any state in the nation. Unfortunately, as a result, the Palmetto State perennially ranks near the bottom of the national list in scholastic achievement and the performance of its schools.

But this is not entirely the result of the state's setting the bar too high. Much of the problem arises because of federal mandates.

Under the federal rules, states have to treat all schools that fail to show adequate yearly progress the same. Schools fail if just one group of students flunks one subject.

Following the letter of the law creates results that border on the absurd. For example, learning-disabled and non-English-speaking students must take the same proficiency tests as all other students, and the results -- predictably -- skew the average yearly progress measurements.

Last year, only 37 percent of South Carolina schools met their yearly-progress goals. Of the schools that failed, 13 percent missed just one goal.

But state education officials now are hoping that the federal Education Department will allow South Carolina to focus resources on the schools that need more help instead of treating all struggling schools alike.

"One thing we know for sure is that we must take dramatic action to improve our lowest-performing schools," U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said. "We also know that not all struggling schools are alike and that many states have identified a wide range of schools for improvement."

Five states already have been permitted to make changes. South Carolina officials hope the state will be among the next five.

No Child Left Behind was passed at a time when states did too little to measure the performance of their schools or the success of efforts to improve performance. But the ham-handed methodology required under federal law has produced suspect results while offering little help in pinpointing real problems or finding solutions to them.

Clearly, state education officials and those in the trenches at struggling schools are in a better position to assess needs and solutions. They need the flexibility to do so.

No Child Left Behind should be overhauled. Meanwhile, we hope federal officials will give South Carolina the authority to use limited education money where it will do the most good.