04/22/2007 10:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

No Child Left Behind: The Triumph of Diana Moon Glompers

About two years ago, I penned an essay "With Liberty and Justice and Doctorates for All." I had just attended a press conference where Virginia Governor, Mark Warner, proposed that all children have the same curriculum, a curriculum that would equip them for college or work. Warner's statement was the latest manifestation of that mantra from the 1980's, "all children can learn." Nobody, of course, ever said what they could all learn. It was nutty then; it's nutty now but its nuttiness is codified in the No Child Left Behind act which insists that all children--every last one save for the most severely disabled--be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

In March, 2007, Robert Linn, the preeminent psychometrician in the land, told a joint House/Senate hearing that 100% proficiency was impossible. Linn's testimony occurred shortly after Richard Rothstein's "Proficiency for All: An Oxymoron" laid out a similar case. People vary. You cannot have a meaningful definition of "proficient" and have everyone be proficient. NCLB specifies that the tests to determine proficiency must be linked to "challenging standards." By definition, "challenging" means some people can't do it. If they all could, it wouldn't be challenging.

But as elsewhere in the Bush administration, a fog of unreality hangs over the Department of Education that prevents it from acknowledging Linn's irrefutable conclusion. Ray Simon, an assistant secretary of education, apparently thought the discussion was about Iraq. He responded "We must stay the course. The task is doable." Honest-to-God-truth he said that--unless the Washington Post misquoted him. I was not in the room so I don't know for sure and don't know if he went on to say "We can't cut and run."

All the every-child-this, that and the other evokes Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 short story, Harrison Bergeron:

The year was 2081 and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal in every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anyone else."

Equality was enforced by gun-totin' Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, and her agents. At the story opens George and Hazel Bergeron are watching ballet on TV. The ballerinas "were burdened with sash weights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in." A bulletin arrives and the announcer, having been handicapped with a severe speech impediment, gives it to a ballerina to read. It is about George and Hazel's 14-year-old son, Harrison.

"Harrison Bergeron has escaped from jail. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped and should be regarded as extremely dangerous."

The Bergeron story came to me again on Friday, April 20 when a superintendent from Arizona showed me test score trends from the state and her district. Over a three year period, the chart showed the percent of students falling into one of four levels of achievement: falls far behind standard, approaches standard, meets standard, or exceeds standard.

The pattern is clear for both the district and the state; in reading, mathematics and writing; and across all 4 tested grades (3,5,8,10): Over a three-year period, children in the "falls far behind standard" category become less numerous. Children in the "exceeds standard" category become less numerous. Low-achieving students are drifting up towards the middle; high-achieving students are drifting down towards the middle. In the name of Adequate Yearly Progress and Saint Proficiency, NCLB is making us equal.

So it goes.