Saving No Child Left Behind From Itself

Conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill have introduced a bill that would let states opt out of many of the mandates imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Under the new approach, states would be free to use federal education funds as they see fit, provided they maintain student testing to assess their progress and make the test results publicly available.

Some NCLB supporters charge that the conservative plan would undermine accountability.

Sandy Kress, a former Bush Administration education advisor, protested: “Republicans used to stand for rigor and standards, but no money for education. Now they seem to be for the money, but no standards.”

But a closer look suggests that the real threat to accountability and transparency in public education is NCLB itself. Indeed, the conservative opt-out plan to restore state-level control may be the best option for salvaging accountability to parents and taxpayers.

No Child Left Behind requires states to test students annually and offers a menu of penalties for schools that fail to show progress on state exams. States must measure up against a baseline that rises every year up to 2014, at which point all students are expected to score “proficient” on state tests.

States, however, establish the content standards and passing thresholds of the state tests.

Thus, there is an incentive for states to lower testing standards to avoid federal sanctions.
Some states are doing this already. Though states can use their own tests to assess performance among all students, they must also administer the “National Assessment of Educational Progress” to a sample of students.

This makes it easy to compare proficiency rates in reading and math as measured by the NAEP with what the states report using their own tests. Not surprisingly, the comparison sometimes unveils a huge disparity, with states such as Tennessee and Oklahoma reporting high proficiency rates on state tests that aren’t matched by a similar performance on the NAEP.

The simple conclusion: Some states are “dumbing down” their tests to let more students pass and more schools show “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB. Just imagine what parents in Illinois thought when they saw this recent headline in the Chicago Tribune: “Making Grade Just Got Easier.” The article reported that, “A record number of Illinois schools escaped federal No Child Left Behind sanctions this school year, largely because of changes in how schools are judged and alterations that made state achievement exams easier for students to pass.”

For the education bureaucracy, it’s far more imperative to avoid bad publicity and federal sanctions — whatever it takes — than to offer honest, useful performance assessments to parents and taxpayers. That’s a serious indictment of federal intervention.

Consider what it means for the future. As we approach 2014, when all children are supposed to reach proficiency under NCLB, state benchmarks will rise, as will the incentive for states to lower the bar to avoid penalties. In some states, 2014 may arrive with all children declared “proficient” and no schools labeled “in need of improvement.” That may be a happy day for politicians, but not for parents who want to know whether their children are learning.

Everyone agrees that public schools should be held accountable. The real question is: Accountable to whom? Schools should be accountable to those who can make a difference. Ultimately, that’s parents, not politicians or bureaucrats. But NCLB seeks to make local schools accountable to federal bureaucrats, even though Washington provides only about 8 percent of what is spent on local education.

Unlike bureaucrats, parents are not so concerned about whether all public schools are labeled “proficient” by 2014. A third-grader today will be in high school when that day arrives. What parents want to know now is whether their children are making progress in the classroom each day and each school year.

Accountability should be geared toward providing transparency about school performance, thereby empowering parents and local citizens. The best accountability is to give those with the greatest interest in children’s success — their parents — the opportunity to make decisions based on that information.

Ironically, the NCLB “opt-out” provision is the most promising way to protect the goals of NCLB — to make public education truly transparent and accountable.

Dan Lips is an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation (