The Medford School District is facing the daunting task of cutting $10 million to $14 million from its $90 million budget. That's bad enough, but the state Board of Education seems determined to add to the pain by ratcheting up the scores students must meet on state math tests.

The Medford School District is facing the daunting task of cutting $10 million to $14 million from its $90 million budget. That's bad enough, but the state Board of Education seems determined to add to the pain by ratcheting up the scores students must meet on state math tests.

At the same time, the federal government has increased to 70 percent the proportion of students at each level who must pass the tests to show Adequate Yearly Progress. Schools that fail to meet AYP for two consecutive years face restrictions on how they can spend federal education dollars, and must permit students to transfer to another school — and pay to transport them there.

One such school is Medford's Howard Elementary, which has failed AYP for three years. Overall, Howard students met the standard in math, but special education students did not, and federal rules say they must.

Other Medford schools that failed to reach 70 percent passing in math last year include Jackson and Wilson elementary schools, Madrone Trail Public Charter School and McLoughlin Middle School. These schools serve some of the poorest neighborhoods in Medford, where children face challenges beyond just succeeding in school.

If this seems counter-intuitive to you, you're not alone. It makes no sense to raise the bar ever higher for schools struggling the hardest, and then punish them when they fail.

It is even more frustrating that state Board of Education members, knowing the reality of the increased federal standards, decided to make it even harder for schools to satisfy federal demands by raising the scores necessary to pass at a time when districts across the state face devastating budget cuts. They did this despite a plea from district superintendents, who asked that the higher scores be phased in more gradually.

This does not mean student performance in math is acceptable and needs no improvement. American students are slipping in math ability relative to the rest of the world, and educators cannot ignore that. Improving math instruction and student performance is vital to the students' — and the nation's — future.

But there is a time to demand steep increases in performance: when school districts have the resources they need to meet the new standards. Now is not that time.

Local teachers and administrators already are working hard to improve math instruction, and there is every reason to believe they will continue to do so in the face of huge obstacles. Placing ever-higher obstacles in their way virtually guarantees failure. That's not the way to bolster educators' morale, or to serve students.