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August 20, 2003

Failing an Important Test

By

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 them altogether.

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 proficiency test.

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 him.

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 the classrooms."

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 right."

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."

Ed Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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