Failing an Important Test
A year and a half ago, President Bush signed the No Child Left
Behind Act into law. A quid pro quo was built in: The federal
government would provide more money for public education (much
more). In return, the states would insist that students meet
certain minimum standards.
Well, the money is flowing.
But the results will be difficult, even impossible, to measure,
because states and school districts are finding ways to fudge test
results. Some have gone so far as to change standards-or ignore
Consider the case of Wilfredo Laboy, superintendent of the
Lawrence, Mass. school district.
For three straight years, Laboy has failed a basic literacy test
that the state requires of all educators. He's the only
superintendent in Massachusetts who hasn't passed, although a
number of teachers statewide have also failed. In fact, this year
Laboy suspended 24 teachers because they failed an English
Laboy told the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune that failing the test
bothers him, "because I'm trying to understand the congruence of
what I do here every day and this stupid test." He also said that,
as a non-English speaker, the test is especially difficult for
But high-school students across the state, even non-English
speakers, are now required to pass a standardized test before they
can graduate. How can Laboy possibly demand that the students in
his charge pass a required test while he consistently fails one?
Interestingly, Laboy's district had the state's highest number of
seniors fail the required Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment
System test last year.
State officials, however, are taking Laboy's failures in stride.
"His extensive job responsibilities have made it difficult for him
to properly prepare," Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll told
the Eagle-Tribune. Adds Republican Gov. Mitt Romney: "I'm not sure
that the superintendent of schools is at the same level of
importance to me, in terms of English skills, as our teachers in
So the state ignores its own testing requirements, and Laboy
remains on the job. But at least it hasn't changed its
requirements. That's what Texas did.
Texas Board of Education members gathered last fall to learn the
results of a new statewide achievement test, reported The New York
Times. It wasn't pretty. "Few students did well," board member
Chase Untermeyer said. "Many students got almost no answers
So board members opted to lower the standards. Instead of requiring
third-grade students to get 24 out of 36 questions correct to pass,
they went with 20 out of 36. That's a score of 56 percent, which
wasn't a passing mark in any school I ever went to. But it's good
enough to keep Texas eligible for federal money.
Then there's Michigan, where standards were once especially
stringent. Until last year, a school was listed as "needing
improvement" if less than 75 percent of its students passed a
standardized English test. Under those standards, more than 1,500
schools were sub par in 2002.
How did Michigan solve the problem? By changing its standards. Now,
if 42 percent of students pass the test, a school is certified as
making "adequate progress." That, of course, does no favors for
students at those failing schools. They were actually better off
under the older, higher standards.
Education isn't "one size fits all." We must set demanding
standards, but for those standards to be effective, they have to
come from local school boards.
When the federal government attempts to set national benchmarks,
it often gives school districts an incentive to cheat. And this
failure is expensive, since Washington is collecting billions in
taxes, then turning around and handing it back to states under the
guise of improving education.
We'd be better off if we went back to insisting that local
boards-not the federal government-"leave no child behind."
Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation
(heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research