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If it's another school year, then the sounds of "accountability" must be in the air.

It's been the buzz word ever since President Bush launched No Child Left Behind soon after the 2000 election.

The idea was that by 2015 every child would be doing reading, writing and math at grade level. No more excuses.

But as we all know, those good intentions didn't come with enough resources to boost academic achievement on such a massive scale. The practice of promoting a quarter of all students year after year even though they have failed to master core subjects created much greater momentum than bureaucrats in Washington anticipated.

Today, with just a few years left before No Child Left Behind is supposed to reach 100 percent passing rates, the chief accomplishment of the program has been to identify for parents just how far behind some students and schools really are. Those parents in Flagstaff who don't want their children "held up" by the slower learners have voted with their feet, filling the smaller, specialized charter schools at the expense of FUSD enrollment.

The trend has accelerated this fall when yet another charter school, Basis, opened with 300 former FUSD students. FUSD, which in total has lost 500 students this year, will be held accountable in the next round of testing to ever-higher NCLB passing rates, but from a pool of students with a greater percentage of special needs, learning disabilities and behavioral and home-life challenges.

These children will not be left behind by the time high school graduation rolls around, often thanks to heroic efforts by the teachers and staff at FUSD and other mainstream public schools. But to get them there has meant watering down the curriculum to the point where a high school diploma in Arizona is no guarantee that a student is prepared to do college-level work.

This is made clear at NAU, where the next phase of accountability in public education is kicking in. Up to a quarter of all entering students must take remedial, non-credit writing and math courses after failing initial freshman-level screening exams in those subjects. Further, once they enroll in college-level math classes, up to 30 percent are failing. It's little wonder barely half the freshman class makes it to graduation day.

That puts NAU President John Haeger in a tough spot. He is under increasing pressure from the regents to boost course credit hours and award more degrees -- indeed, future state funding will be tied, in part, to student performance, as will scholarships and financial aid.

But if students with a high school degree are unprepared to do college-level work, is it really the job of the university faculty to get them up to speed?

Haeger has said it is -- he calls a 30 percent course failure rate "unacceptable" and, at least in math, is ready to put his money where his mouth is. He will be asking the regents when they meet in Flagstaff later this week for several million dollars to revamp math courses by using computers and a teaching methodology that will force the faculty to adapt to the multi-tasking learning style of the post-millenium generation -- not the other way around. Just how that might work for more reading-intensive courses in the humanities and social sciences seems more problematic.

We'd hope that Haeger as well as administrators in education at all levels enlist the help and cooperation of faculty and teachers as they attempt to meet the new accountability standards. Educators should be in the business of enabling young people to reach their potential by becoming critical thinkers and lifelong learners. A high school or college degree just for the sake of meeting a quota or a budget doesn't do the student or society much good. We'd urge the education establishment at all levels to think hard about what it takes to become an educated person and how to benchmark in meaningful ways the progress toward that goal.



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