By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
October 5, 2007; Page A16
The Wall Street Journal
President George W. Bush’s signature education reform — the No Child Left Behind Act — is coming in for a close inspection in Congress. And, it seems, members on both sides of the aisle have plenty of ideas of how to tinker with NCLB.
But almost nobody is talking about the law’s central flaw: Its mandate that every American schoolchild must become “proficient” in reading and math while not defining what “proficiency” is. The result of this flaw is that we now have a patchwork of discrepant standards and expectations that will, in fact, leave millions of kids behind, foster new (state-to-state) inequities in education quality, and fail to give the United States the schools it needs to compete globally in the 21st century.
Reduced to its essentials, NCLB works like this: Each state sets a “proficiency” bar over which it is supposed to drag all its children (grades third through eighth) by 2014; schools that fail to make steady progress toward that goal are slated for “improvement” of various sorts.
So far, so good. But while NCLB circa 2001 is rigidly prescriptive about the “improvement” part, it’s vague about where to set the bar. As a result, a fourth grader living in Hamtramck or Pueblo may be judged “proficient” according to Michigan’s or Colorado’s low standards, yet fail by a mile to match the attainments of his or her peers in Worcester, Mass., or Columbia, S.C., places with far loftier notions of proficiency.
A new analysis of where 26 states have set their bars, conducted by Northwest Evaluation Associates (NWEA) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, shows dizzying state-to-state variation in the math and reading skills that primary and middle-school youngsters are expected to acquire, with “passing” scores varying from the sixth to the 77th percentile on NWEA’s rock-solid scale.
Unfortunately, there’s more. The study also reveals that:
• Over the past few years, intentionally or not, more states have let their tests grow easier to pass than have made them harder. The evidence is student gains appearing on state test results that are not borne out by independent measures.
• Few states peg their expectations consistently across the grades. Most set up thousands of children for unexpected trouble in middle school by aiming low in primary school
• States typically have far higher standards for math than for reading.
If “proficiency” has no stable or comparable meaning, NCLB’s entire strategy for intervening in low-performing schools and districts rests on quicksand. And millions of parents are getting garbled and misleading information as to how their own children, and their children’s schools and school systems, are actually doing.
Congress and the White House erred when they agreed in 2001 that each state would be obliged to set its own standards and score its own tests; no matter what one thinks of America’s history of state and local control of schooling, we now see the folly of a big modern nation, worried about its global competitiveness, nodding with approval as Wisconsin sets its (eighth-grade) reading passing level at the 14th percentile while South Carolina sets its at the 71st. A youngster moving from middle school in Milwaukee to high school in Charleston would be grievously unprepared for what lies ahead. So would a child moving from third grade in Detroit to fourth grade in Albuquerque.
Yet official Washington seemingly lacks the stomach to take this on. The conventional wisdom is that “national standards and tests” are politically taboo because conservatives don’t like “national” and liberals don’t like standards and testing. The Gates and Broad foundations are spending tens of millions to overturn that taboo during the upcoming election, but few in the 110th Congress seem to be listening.
Nor is anybody ready to tackle the other part of NCLB’s core problem: the quest for universal proficiency. No educator in America believes this can be achieved anytime soon, not with 100% of the kids and by any reasonable standard of proficiency. The truth is that boosting our students’ proficiency from today’s 35% to 70% or 80% would be a transformative accomplishment. But no politician dares say that, lest he instantly be skewered with “which 20% of the kids don’t you care about?”
Meanwhile, the federal mandate to produce 100% proficiency fosters low standards, game-playing by states and districts, and cynicism and rear-end-covering by educators.
Tinkering with NCLB, as today’s bills and plans would do, may ease some of the current law’s other problems. But until lawmakers muster the intestinal fortitude to go after its central illusions, America’s needed education makeover is not going to occur.
Mr. Finn is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.