As much as I've heard and read about "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) — the landmark education bill President Bush signed into law five years ago, I had no idea that every state uses a different test and standard to determine whether its schools are making the required progress under the law.
It is an issue, we learned, that is debated sharply in education circles — with some states accusing others of lowering the bar by using easier tests and lower standards to make their schools look more successful.
Why would they do this? Well, the stakes couldn't be higher. A school that is identified as not meeting NCLB targets — the requirement is 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014 — could face sanctions or ultimately be shut down.
What we learned is that, like most subjects, this topic can't be broken down into right and wrong or black and white. It's much more complicated than that — and states, at least the ones we visited, appear to be trying to do the right thing, which is give their kids the best education they possibly can.
Consider the places we traveled: Georgia and neighboring South Carolina. The two states have nearly identical scores on a national reading test for fourth graders (around 26 percent proficiency) but dramatically different results on their state tests. South Carolina's fourth-graders had a 36 percent proficiency rating in reading, while Georgia's was 87 percent.
Does this mean kids are reading that much better in Georgia than in South Carolina?
No, says Jim Ray, a school superintendent in Spartanburg, S.C., who says his state's standards are tougher than Georgia's. The answer, he says, isn't for South Carolina to lower its standards but for the federal government to come up with uniform standards so all states can be judged equally.
"If you are not going to mandate a common playing field and a common measuring stick, then you don't really have any teeth in this system, except that you are going to punish the ones, ironically, that were trying to do the right thing," he told CBS News.
Off we went to Georgia to ask the tough questions. How could state educators explain how fourth graders had an 87 percent proficiency rating on the state reading test and a 26 percent proficiency rating on the national test given to a sample of students in each state — a gap of 61 points?
Kathy Cox, Georgia's Superintendent of Education, says part of the gap is because her state has a wider definition of proficiency than the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. Educators use state results to determine whether kids should be promoted to a higher grade, she said.
"For a state test that is high-stakes, particularly when third- and fifth-grade promotion retention decisions are based on your definition, you have to have a wider range of your proficiency levels," Cox said. "But there's still a gap, and that's an issue we've been dealing with in terms of rigor."
Cox says, in response to the gap, she's rolling out a new curriculum and toughening standards for proficiency. "We don't want this gap, we think we are doing a good job of educating kids in Georgia and we're not satisfied at all."
Congress is considering making changes to the law, while the Department of Education is expected to issue a report in the near future comparing how states do on their tests with results on that national exam.
Will any real changes be made? Could Congress mandate that every state use the same standard — or maybe call for a national test which would be given to all students around the country? It's hard to say. About the only thing we know for sure is this topic generates intense passions and very different opinions.
Ultimately though, it comes down to this: Are kids getting the best education possible? The educators we met, while they have very different points of view, seem intent on making sure the answer to that question is "yes."