No Child Left Behind is a law that is admirable in its intent but flawed in its particulars.
Its stated goal was to enable disadvantaged students to escape clearly failing public schools. This goal is absolutely correct. I’ve read enough articles on charter school lotteries to know that urban parents are desperate for an out – and we should do everything we can to give it to them.
Problem is, NCLB failed to establish a universal definition for “failing school.”
Instead, the law allows each state to draw up its own standards and create its own tests. ‘Tis true enough that education has traditionally been the province of the states, but NCLB takes federalism too far, and what has resulted is educational chaos. Did you know, for example, that the gap between the percentage of Mississippi students testing as proficient in fourth grade reading on the NAEP and the percentage of Mississippi students testing as proficient on Mississippi’s own reading test is a whopping 71%?
My own state is not nearly as bad as that, but as an educator, I am frequently disturbed by Virginia’s tendency to set the bar low. For example, to be declared “proficient” in first year Chemistry, Virginia requires that you receive the piddling score of 55% on the end-of-year Standards of Learning exam. It is entirely possible – and trust me, I have seen this – for a Virginia Chemistry student to “pass” the course without understanding basic stoichiometry. And the state’s standards for other subjects are not much better. I have, for example, seen students pass sixth grade mathematics without understanding either long division or fractions. This is not a good thing!
The trouble with NCLB is that it has created perverse incentives to cheat.
Because the law has allowed states to make up their own standards, we find ourselves in Lake Wobegon, where the children are all above-average. The states know they will be punished if an insufficient percentage of their students are testing as “proficient,” so they set their standards so ridiculously low that even a monkey can make the grade.
The fix for this is simple: enable the federal government to oversee test creation.
I don’t hold to the idea that standardized tests should be abolished. I believe they are the fairest means to measure educational progress if they are developed and administered correctly. However, we should hold the states accountable for the quality – or lack thereof – of their exams, and we should use the NAEP to do this. The NAEP is an achievement test administered on a regular basis to a nationally representative sample of students that is considered by many to be the gold standard in U.S. educational assessment. We should compare the NAEP’s results to the results the states report on their own exams. If a state shows a Mississippi-type gap, the federal government should be empowered to force that state to revise its tests.
This solution still delegates the primary responsibility for crafting educational standards to the individual states, but hopefully, it will keep rampant score inflation in check.