AIKEN - Think of a shooting match where the marksman must hit a bull's-eye with every shot or a baseball game where a player wins only if every pitch is hit.
That's how public school officials see the tough demands of the No Child Left Behind accountability act. Under the all-or-nothing standards of the federal law, hitting three-for-four, an excellent day for a ballplayer, isn't good enough for a elementary, middle or high school. Neither is placing 23 of 25 shots dead center.
"You've got to hit them all," said David Mathis, the assistant superintendent for instruction for the Edgefield County school district. "You miss one, and that can drag down the whole school."
Schools have a different number of targets that have to be perfectly nailed. Although the focus has been on meeting standards on math and English tests, attendance, and test participation, schools also must hit the right score levels and percentages for every subgroup of the school population.
Depending on the number of subgroups a school has in its classes - including blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Asian/Pacific Islanders, pupils receiving a subsidized or free lunch or using English as a second language - the number of targets can range from 21 to 38, said Frank Roberson, the associate superintendent for instruction for the Aiken County school district.
Schools have to have 40 members of a subgroup before those pupils count as a mandated target of No Child Left Behind. The bigger the school and the more densely populated its service area, the more likely it will be to have a large number of subgroups and targets, Mr. Mathis said.
Most Aiken County schools have 21 targets. South Carolina education officials have pegged the average at 25. Some schools can have as few as 16, Dr. Roberson said.
The emphasis on attendance and test scores and participation caused some educators in Richmond and Columbia counties to protest when their schools were put on the act's needs-improvement list. Although their pupils might have scored well on tests, there might not have been enough children taking the tests or attendance could have fallen too low.
That also caught South Carolina educators by surprise.
"We were concentrating more on test scores than we were attendance," Mr. Mathis said. "With a large school and elementary-age children and childhood sickness, it's hard to keep everybody in class."
This escalation of targets can cut several ways, Mr. Mathis said. A large subgroup of low-scoring pupils can present a school with a lasting inability to hit every target. On the other hand, having a predominant subgroup - be it economically disadvantaged or English-as-second language pupils - could allow a school to concentrate its educational resources.
Dr. Roberson sees a different kind of cut. Each subgroup could have different academic deficiencies; one might need help in math while another needs help in English.
"That's going to make it difficult to concentrate resources," he said.
In Aiken County, 29 out of 31 elementary and middle schools have failed to hit all the targets mandated by No Child Left Behind, said Dr. Roberson. Across South Carolina, about 80 percent of the schools will make the needs-improvement list, said state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum.
"We've got excellent schools in the state that are not going to make it," she said.
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.