The promise of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was that every student would reach grade-level mastery by 2014 through better teaching and more resources.
But as schools try to bulldoze the bell curve into more of a ski slope, harsh reality sifts in like grit gumming up the gears.
According to a state Department of Education report, 26 percent of all middle schools made sufficient progress in 2010. For all elementary schools, the figure was 40 percent.
School districts up and down the Central Valley aren't making the grade.
Modesto City Schools is on the federal watch list for not making sufficient improvement, as are the principal districts of Riverbank, Turlock, Manteca, Tracy, Merced, Fresno, Stockton, Lodi, Sacramento and Bakersfield.
Mammoth Los Angeles Unified, with its nearly 700,000 students, is in its fourth year on the watch list.
By 2014, every major urban district may be labeled a failure.
Or the government could change the rules, which is what experts are expecting.
"We're kind of living at the tail end of an old system," said Sue Rich, assistant superintendent for the Stanislaus County Office of Education. Rich analyzes testing data for Stanislaus County schools.
Rich said President Barack Obama is widely expected to unveil his blueprint for school improvement within the next year. The federal education funding bill, reauthorized every five years, was what became the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
"We're hoping for a growth model -- here they go, here's where you are," Rich said. Measuring achievement by progress made allows children who started far behind to still be winners, she said. "I think of it as a hopeful system."
Under No Child Left Behind, the timeline of target scores is fairly flat until 2007-08, when they turn and shoot toward perfection in a steeply angled line. Educators call the graph of target points "the hockey stick" -- a fairly flat section, then a steep angle upward.
The 2009-10 scores released last week are halfway up the handle of the hockey stick.
Advocates for better schools are frustrated, as are the administrators and teachers trying to make the grade. Analysts are sitting back waiting for the next shoe to drop.
"The one thing we know for sure is that accountability will not go away," Rich said.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.