April 23, 2007
By Dan Lips
Conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill have introduced a bill
that would let states opt out of many of the mandates imposed by
the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Under the new approach, states would be free to use federal
education funds as they see fit, provided they maintain student
testing to assess their progress and make the test results publicly
Some NCLB supporters charge that the conservative plan would
Sandy Kress, a former Bush administration education adviser,
protested: "Republicans used to stand for rigor and standards, but
no money for education. Now they seem to be for the money, but no
But a closer look suggests that the real threat to
accountability and transparency in public
education is NCLB itself. Indeed, the conservative opt-out plan to
restore state-level control may be the best option for salvaging
accountability for parents and taxpayers.
The law requires states to test students annually and offers a
menu of penalties for schools that fail to show progress on those
exams. States must measure up against a baseline that rises every
year up to 2014, at which point all students are expected to score
"proficient" on the tests.
States, however, establish the content standards and passing
thresholds of the tests - meaning there's an incentive for states
to lower testing standards to avoid federal sanctions.
Some are doing this already. Though states can use their own
exams to assess performance among all students, they must also
administer the"National Assessment of Educational Progress" (NAEP)
to a sample of students. This makes it easy to compare proficiency
rates in reading and math as measured by the NAEP with what the
states report using their own tests.
Not surprisingly, the comparison sometimes unveils a huge
disparity, with Tennessee and Oklahoma, for example, reporting high
proficiency rates on their tests that aren't matched by a similar
performance on the NAEP.
The simple conclusion: Some states are "dumbing down" their
exams to let more students pass and more schools show "adequate
yearly progress" under NCLB.
Just imagine what parents in Illinois 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
For the education bureaucracy, it's far more imperative to avoid
bad publicity and federal sanctions - whatever it takes - than to
offer honest, useful performance assessments to parents and
taxpayers. That's a serious indictment of federal intervention.
Consider what it 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.
Everyone agrees that public schools should be held accountable.
The real question is: Accountable to whom?
The answer is that schools should be accountable to those who
can make a difference. Ultimately, that's parents, not politicians
or bureaucrats. But NCLB seeks to make local schools accountable to
federal bureaucrats, even though Washington provides only about 8
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 way to do that 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 No Child Left Behind "opt-out" provision is the
most promising way to protect the goals of the law: to make public
education truly transparent and accountable.
Dan Lips is an
Education Analyst and Evan Feinberg is a Research Assistant in
Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation
First appeared in Fox News
Conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill have introduced a bill that would let states opt out of many of the mandates imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Senior Policy Analyst
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