No Child Left Behind: Reform in Need of Reform

This month marks the fifth anniversary of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the key education initiative of the Bush administration. Is it time to renew our vows, or go our separate ways?

Current federal law requires public schools to test students against state developed standards, and rank the performance of schools according to the results. Schools failing to make adequate progress face losing federal funds.

So what’s the problem? It isn’t working.

“I've gradually and reluctantly come to the conclusion that NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair,” wrote Mike Petrilli, former high-level Bush administration education official and NCLB stalwart.

Mr. Petrilli laments several flaws in the law, but none more damaging than what he calls the “race to the bottom.” Allow me to explain.

NCLB left control over test content and passing standards with the states. In exchange, states must increase the number of students who pass their tests each year, eventually requiring all students to achieve “proficiency” by 2014.

In essence, NCLB will require all students to pass all tests, or else the federal government will sanction those schools. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see where this is going. To avoid sanctions, states have already begun watering down their tests.

The best way to illustrate this sad phenomenon is to compare state test scores against the long-standing, well-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP, also know as the Nation’s Report Card, has been given to representative samples of students in all states for decades. It judges the relative performance of states in a variety of academic subjects.

The discrepancy between NAEP and NCLB scores is stark. In Arizona, for example, more than twice as many eighth-graders score “proficient” on the state’s reading test than on the NAEP. For African-American and Hispanic students, the discrepancy is even worse: five times as many of these students score proficient on the state exam as compared to the NAEP.

Most states have simply lowered the passing threshold for their respective NCLB exams. By reducing the number of questions students have to get right in order to pass, failing schools can be transformed overnight into strong performers.

States have also made their exam questions easier. In 2004, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the questions on Georgia’s third-grade reading test were little more than “speed bumps on the road to fourth grade.”

The Georgia Department of Education released data showing that 16 of 40 questions on the third-grade reading test were easy, with 75 percent or more of the students getting them right. Not coincidentally, students only had to answer 17 of 40 questions correctly to pass and advance to the fourth grade.

Georgia is hardly alone. In Texas, students need to correctly answer only 29 of 60 questions in order to pass the math section of the accountability exam. This prompted one Texas columnist to wonder why the education bureaucracy did not simply require a single correct answer, noting “then they could have had 100 percent passing rates.”

That, in fact, seems to be exactly the course most states have set. They are on a “race to the bottom.”

The state NCLB tests have been seriously compromised by politics, and will likely remain so as long as there is a threat of sanctions, and as long as states control their own tests. The question is, what do we do now?

NCLB is up for Congressional reauthorization this year and the new Democratic majority has its eye on some changes. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the new chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has a wish list that includes social programs for low-income children, federally financed outreach workers in schools as a way of raising achievement, and a new federal role in renovating school buildings.

In essence, he would remove all punitive accountability measures and greatly increase federal funding.

Instead of giving up on the idea of accountability altogether, Congress could instead allow states to design their own accountability models under a “charter state” provision. The charter state concept was included in the original NCLB proposal, but it was eventually stripped out in Congressional negotiations. It deserves a second look.

A charter state provision would allow states to choose between the current accountability system and a five year agreement that would free them from federal requirements as long as they monitored and reported academic progress. Instead of mandating every state to follow an accountability formula dictated from Washington, each state would be allowed to determine the type of accountability measures they want to pursue. This would once again put education policy decisions in the hands of states, allowing them to be more responsive to the needs of students and parents.

In order to keep NCLB out of the dust bin of failed education reforms, Congress must recognize its limited ability to direct education policy. Exploring options like the charter state provision will restore federalism in education.

Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., is vice-president for research at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute.