Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, said Monday the department is working on a process to grant waivers from a requirement that is proving increasingly counterproductive.Under No Child Left Behind, the nation's law governing elementary and secondary education, all students must be proficient in math and reading by 2014. The 2001 legislation requires that states set progress targets, raising the mark every year until schools achieve 100 percent proficiency by the deadline. Schools that do not make the necessary progress over a number of years face harsh penalties, including the firing of teachers and principals, closure and loss of federal fundsThe proficiency mandate never was realistic. More than anything, it was an aspiration driven by a realization that the nation's schools are underperforming. There was reason for the mandate. Wide differences in achievement persist among student groups. International test scores show American students are slipping in performance.It is hard to fault the insistence in the law that state school systems ensure, at the very least, that every child could read and do math at grade level. Unfortunately, more schools every year find the effort to meet the requirement an exercise in frustration, often hampered by inadequate resources, frequent testing, and accountability measures that don't reflect actual growth in student performance.The flaws in the current law have been apparent for years. In one more example of an institution that is stalled, Congress has yet to get around to rewriting the education law to include more practical assessments of academic progress.As a result, many states are far from meeting the deadline. An estimated 82 percent of schools this year would be failures under the current law. Like other states, Ohio is now considering applying for a waiver from the requirement while it develops more realistic measures of proficiency and growth.The Obama administration is right to forge ahead with a waiver process. Still, the waiver option should not be an excuse to ease up on the obligation of states to ensure they meet the educational needs of every child.