By Dan Lips
Last week, conservatives on Capitol Hill introduced a plan to give states the choice to opt out of many of the federal mandates created by No Child Left Behind. States opting out would be free to use federal funding as they see fit if they maintain transparency through state-level testing and reporting information to the public.
Some NCLB supporters charge that the conservative plan will do damage to accountability standards. Sandy Kress, a former Bush Administration education advisor, said, "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 NCLB is threatening to destroy real accountability and transparency in public education. Moreover, the conservative opt-out plan to restore state-level control may be the best option for salvaging transparency and accountability to parents and taxpayers.
No Child Left Behind required states to test students annually and created 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 so that all students school score "proficient" on state tests by 2014. States, however, establish the content standards and passing thresholds of the state tests. The interaction of these policies created an incentive for states to lower testing standards to avoid federal sanctions. Research indicates that this is what some states are doing.
All states are required to administer the "National Assessment of Educational Progress" to a sample of students each year. It's easy for researchers to compare proficiency rates in reading and math on the NAEP with what the states are reporting on their own tests. Some states report big gains on state-level proficiency scores without registering similar improvement on the NAEP.
The simple conclusion is that some states are "dumbing down" their tests to allow more students to pass and more schools show "adequate yearly progress" under NCLB. Meeting federal requirements has become a stronger incentive than offering useful information to parents and taxpayers. This is a serious indictment of federal intervention.
NCLB's backers and accountability advocates should consider what this 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.
Just imagine what parents in Illinois might have 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."
This is the path toward the end of real transparency and accountability in public education.
Everyone agrees that public schools must be held accountable for results. But the real question is, accountable to whom - parents or Washington politicians and the Department of Education? Schools need to be accountable to those who can make a difference. Ultimately, that's parents, not bureaucrats. But No Child Left Behind is based on bureaucratic accountability, even though Washington provides only about eight 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 conservatives on Capitol Hill who are proposing the "opt-out" provision have the most promising solution to protect the goals of NCLB - bringing real transparency and accountability in public education.
Conservatives on Capitol Hill believe schools should be accountable to parents and the public. Their legislation would require states to maintain state-level testing and information reporting (including information about different student sub-groups) to ensure that schools continue to focus on results. But they would remove NCLB's incentives for states to lower the bar on state tests just to avoid bad publicity and federal sanctions.
Focusing on parents and state and local taxpayers is the most promising way to protect transparency and accountability in education, and it is also the most promising route to better educational achievement.