Some schools deemed to be failing in one state would get passing grades in another under the No Child Left Behind law, a national study found.
The study underscores wide variation in academic standards from state to state. It was to be issued Thursday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which conducted the study with the Kingsbury Center at the Northwest Evaluation Association.
The study comes as the Obama administration indicates it will encourage states to adopt common standards, an often controversial issue on which previous presidents have trod lightly.
"I know that talking about standards can make people nervous," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently.
"But the notion that we have 50 different goal posts doesn't make sense," Duncan said. "A high school diploma needs to mean something, no matter where it's from."
Every state, he said, needs standards that make kids college- and career-ready and are benchmarked against international standards.
The Fordham study measured test scores of 36 elementary and middle schools against accountability rules in 28 states.
It found the schools failed to meet yearly progress goals in states with more rigorous standards, such as Massachusetts. But they met yearly progress goals in states with lower standards, such as Arizona and Wisconsin. Under No Child Left Behind, states have a patchwork of rules that vary from state to state, the study said.
No Child Left Behind is misleading, said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the nonprofit Fordham Foundation.
"It misleads people into thinking that we have a semblance of a national accountability system for public schools, and we actually don't," Finn said. "And it's produced results I would call unfair from one state to the next."
No Child Left Behind was championed by President George W. Bush and passed with broad bipartisan support, though it has since become hugely unpopular.
The law prods schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014. It is up to states to set yearly progress goals, "annual yearly progress," or AYP, and each state has its own standards and tests.
It is unlikely the Obama administration or Congress will try to force states to adopt the same standards.
Rather, they favor a carrot-and-stick approach that offers states funding to develop new standards and tests or offers more flexibility under No Child Left Behind.
The House Education Committee chairman, Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, called for incentives when Congress prepared to rewrite the law in 2007, an effort that subsequently stalled.
In the Senate, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander pushed legislation that offered to waive the rigid annual yearly progress structure in exchange for raising standards to national or international benchmarks.
And in the newly enacted economic stimulus bill, there is a $5 billion incentive fund for Duncan to reward states for, among other things, boosting the quality of standards and state tests.
Several states are moving in that direction; for example, 16 of them working with Achieve, a nonprofit founded by governors and corporate leaders, have adopted common math and English standards.
Any effort toward common standards is likely to have support from teachers' unions.
Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, wrote an op-ed piece Monday in The Washington Post arguing for national standards.
Like Duncan, she used a football analogy, comparing the patchwork of standards to a Super Bowl where the Pittsburgh Steelers must move the ball a full 10 yards but the Arizona Cardinals must go only 7.
"Every other industrialized nation has national standards," Weingarten said in an interview. "When you start thinking about how are we going to create a school system throughout the United States that helps enable kids to be prepared for college, prepared for life and prepared for work, you have to start with common standards," she said.