Education

Test, but Verify

Almost two years ago, this space discussed George W. Bush's centerpiece education program in a column that started off this way: "There is a rebellion...
by | March 25, 2007

Almost two years ago, this space discussed George W. Bush's centerpiece education program in a column that started off this way: "There is a rebellion brewing in the states over the administration's No Child Left Behind Law, and if it plays out the way I think it might, it will mark a turning point in federal-state relations. The irony is that the most crimson of the red states are leading the charge against a White House that supposedly is most sensitive to their interests."

I had it almost right. One election later, the rebels are at the gate, but it's a strange assortment of people in the mob: some liberals, suspicious of an overemphasis on testing; traditional conservatives (as opposed to Bush "big government" conservatives), who don't want the feds mucking around in the business of states and localities; and of course much of the educational establishment, including the teachers' unions, which haven't always been quick to embrace change -- especially this one.

This fall, Congress is supposed to reauthorize the law, which went into effect in January 2002. More likely, Congress will do what it often does and put off any decision by extending the existing law until yet another election has passed. Increasingly, that is the Washington Way.

No matter when it decides what to do with probably the nation's most far-reaching education law ever, Congress will find the task daunting.

The first question it will have to ask is whether the law has worked. And that's not as easy to answer as you might think, in part because it depends on who is doing the testing. Most states are reporting significant improvement in math and reading proficiency scores. But when results from a federally mandated test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or "nation's report card," were reported in late 2005, the news was downright gloomy. Reading scores for fourth-graders and eighth-graders were fairly static -- especially among the older students, where we've seen little progress in the past 15 years. Math scores improved some, but the rate of progress has slowed. Most significantly, the results were continuations of trends that existed well before No Child Left Behind was enacted.

What's more, though the law was designed in particular to improve performance among minority students in the nation's weakest schools, there has been little evidence that that is happening. Recent studies consistently show the achievement gaps between white and Asian students and between black and Hispanic students not only remain wide, but also increase as kids get older.

Since the law was enacted, most states clearly have dumbed down their proficiency tests because of the statute's punitive nature. Because states face sanctions if they cannot improve scores, it doesn't make much sense not to. And the relatively few who have stuck to the more rigorous testing, and whose results parallel the national assessment, must wonder what's in it for them.

But Not Enough

The problem for the Bush administration is that the Republican base in the suburbs and exurbs is rebelling against the law because parents feel that it sucks up resources for popular programs designed for higher-achieving students. Instead, the emphasis has been narrowed to proficiency testing for reading and math. That may make more sense in the inner cities as a necessary first step, but not in areas where kids traditionally do better academically.

To an extent, the administration has only itself to blame. Although in the past five years it has substantially increased general funding for educating poor children, it never has followed through with the money promised for implementing the law. Appropriations for the program have fallen more than one-third short of what originally was authorized. That has given the states and localities a legitimate beef that the education law is just another in a series of unfunded mandates Washington has imposed as it lowers its own taxes. So now the Republicans are facing a rebellion within their own ranks.

What to do? Somewhat surprisingly, a 15-member, bipartisan commission assembled to ask that question has recommended a substantial expansion of the law into high school, as well as adding science to reading and math. The commission was chaired by two former governors: Republican Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, a former secretary of Health and Human Services, and Democrat Roy Barnes of Georgia. The commission not only didn't back away from the basic tenets of the law, but it also proposed added requirements for assessing the effectiveness of teachers and principals, and offering professional development for those at risk.

Thanks to support from some important Democrats, the administration may be able to salvage the law, but only if it backs away from the punitive nature of enforcement, starts to provide the full funding originally seen as necessary, and perhaps even ditches the name. Politically, "No Child Left Behind" initially was a brilliant brand, but now it only conjures up the image of the children of Lake Wobegon, all of whom are above average. And the unreality of that may be one of its most serious problems.

This column first appeared in CQ Weekly.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus
pharkness@governing.com  | 

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