Backgrounder- Heritage Backgrounders give researchers the in-depth information they need on a wide variety of key issues.
As Congress considers reauthorization of the No Child Left
Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, a fundamental question in the debate is
whether to continue to increase the federal government's management
authority over Education or to restore citizen ownership of
The No Child Left Behind Act dramatically increased federal
authority. While the federal government provides only 8.5 percent
of the funding for public Education, NCLB gave Congress and the
U.S. Department of Education new powers to set policies governing
America's public schools. This increased power has resulted in
unintended consequences and problems that need to be addressed in
One significant problem is that NCLB testing policies have
inadvertently weakened state-level testing and academic
transparency. Under NCLB, states are required to test students
annually and demonstrate continual progress toward a federal goal
with all students reaching "proficiency" on state-level tests by
2014. Some states have responded to this pressure by changing how
their tests are scored to allow more students to pass and to show
more progress under NCLB.
This problem, which researchers have called a "race to the
bottom," threatens to erode academic transparency in America's
schools. As states respond to the pressure of NCLB testing by
lowering state standards, parents, citizens, and policymakers are
denied basic information about student performance in America's
schools. The loss of academic transparency will hinder parents from
knowing whether or not their children are learning and will prevent
policymakers from judging how well public schools are
To protect citizen ownership of American Education, Congress
must address the negative structural incentives of No Child Left
Behind testing policies. This can best be accomplished by ending
federal goals for student progress and returning control of state
standards and accountability policies to the state level. This will
maintain academic transparency in state testing and restore greater
citizen ownership in American Education, both of which are
necessary conditions to enable future reforms to strengthen public
Past Federal Involvement
in K-12 Education
Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) opposed the National Defense
Education Act of 1958, the first federal law that provided funding
to K-12 schools, because it included 12 federal mandates. Congress
passed the act in the hope of improving American math, science, and
foreign language proficiency in the wake of the Soviet launch of
Sputnik. Goldwater warned prophetically that "federal aid to
Education invariably means federal control of education."
Yet Goldwater's warnings proved no match for a national wave of
Cold War Education hysteria. Almost 50 years later, the federal
government has enormously expanded its involvement in K-12
schooling. The total federal share of the K-12 education budget
remains under 10 percent of total spending on elementary and high
school Education, but it serves as a vehicle for a huge number of
federal mandates on schools.
The refashioning of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
(ESEA) into No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan effort to get
better results from federal Education spending. However, in
reauthorizing NCLB, Congress faces an unsustainable status quo.
Although fashioned with noble intentions, NCLB created a powerful
perverse incentive for states to lower their academic standards,
and that pressure to lower standards will grow stronger with each
passing year unless Congress makes substantial changes.
As it currently stands, NCLB carries enormous costs, both in
terms of federal taxpayer dollars and in terms of state and local
revenues dedicated to its implementation. Moreover, its success as
a public school reform strategy is still unproven. Most important,
it has the potential to undermine the very purposes that it was
created to promote: accountability and transparency. It may in fact
NCLB embraces two powerful but contradictory approaches to
Education policy. On the one hand, it argues that Congress must
increase its efforts at educational improvement. On the other, it
asserts -- as we do -- that real reform will come about only when those
closest to the student are empowered to make decisions and
With NCLB, Congress initially attempted to finesse these
competing sentiments, but the effort has proven futile. With NCLB
reauthorization, Congress must now choose whether the Education
that America needs can be achieved through increased federal
intervention or by restoring parent and citizen ownership of
education. To be effective, American Education can no longer serve
Policymakers should embrace transparency as the primary goal in
this round of debate over federal Education policy. Transparency is
one of several necessary steps in Education policy reform. It is
essential to inform the decisions of parents and taxpayers.
Ultimately, Education policy at all levels should equip Americans
to take ownership of their public schools.
NCLB and the Race to the Bottom
Over the past two decades, standards and testing regimes have
been created to provide better information about educational
results, not just inputs. This information about results serves
different purposes for different audiences, but broadly speaking,
users can be divided into two major categories according to
First, there are those who are interested in the
long-term actual achievements of particular students. Parents are
foremost among this group of information users because they have
the longest-term and greatest interest in the real achievement of
their children, but it also includes all citizens interested in the
social welfare and future of the United States.
Second, there are users whose interest is short-term and
whose personal performance will be judged by the results (e.g.,
politicians, principals, and teachers unions). Particularly in the
post-NCLB accountability regime, funding decisions and consequences
for schools are based on results. For politicians, the ability to
claim progress during their tenure in office has become a crucial
criterion of their success. Those in charge of the nation's schools
do not want to be seen as failing to deliver; therefore, they have
every incentive to devise strategies that evade true accountability
rather than promote it. As Adam Urbanski, president of the
Rochester Teachers Union once said, "Nobody is better at creative
insubordination than school people."
Both of these user groups are often described as having a
"stake" in educational outcomes, but the public discussion often
does not distinguish between the different stakes of each
The first group -- parents and citizens -- have an interest in the
real achievement of individual students. When results obfuscate or
portray higher-than-actual student performance, it does parents and
citizens no good.
The second group -- politicians, school leaders, and teachers
unions -- have a self-interest in the results. This group does not
need real achievement to benefit. They stand to gain from relative
gains (e.g., a slight narrowing of the achievement gap between
low-income or minority students and their peers) or even apparent
gains that do not really exist. This is not to say that many in
this second group are not earnestly interested in real student
achievement. It merely says that the system's incentives are
constructed in such a way that they do not have to be.
Ultimately, America needs fundamental Education reform that will
prioritize the information needs of parents and citizens and at the
same time reconcile the incentives of the second group of
stakeholders with that objective. Educational excellence is not
served by regimes that confuse multiple interests and distort the
primary goal of real student achievement. Accountability and
transparency policy should be formulated accordingly. The goal
should be accountability to parents, families, and taxpayers.
Public school reporting should be first and foremost for them, not
primarily to public school and government officials.
NCLB vs. Transparency
NCLB requires states to test all students in grade 3 through
grade 8 annually. Each year, states must demonstrate an ever
increasing percentage of proficient students, with a requirement of
100 percent proficiency on all exams by 2014.
Because NCLB allows the states to determine the content of these
tests and what constitutes proficiency, researchers have already
noted a pattern whereby states lower passing thresholds and
otherwise "dumb down" state tests to achieve increased
"proficiency" and avoid federal sanctions. Absent a change in NCLB,
the pressure on states to lower their standards will grow
dramatically. In the process, citizens, parents, and policymakers
stand to lose vital information concerning the academic output of
When NCLB was enacted in 2002, schools were required to report
testing results to the federal government, which in turn would rank
schools according to their students' performance. Schools failing
to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) over time must provide
expanded student transfer rights and academic assistance and
tutoring for children. The authors of NCLB hoped that the
combination of the glare of transparency and the threat of federal
sanctions would compel public schools to improve.
NCLB also requires states to set Annual Measurable Objectives
(AMOs) that would serve as yearly targets for the percentage of
students passing state tests. Schools must meet AMOs for each
applicable subgroup of students, including white, black, Asian or
Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Hispanic, as well as English
language learner, special Education, and low-income. Chart
1 shows an example of Annual Measurable Objectives for 5th Grade
Mathematics in Arizona.
Despite all of the reporting requirements and the goal of 100
percent proficiency by the 2013-2014 school year, many states are
actually lowering their academic standards. To date, federal
passing requirements have taken only the first steps toward the 100
percent requirement, but observers have already noted the lowering
of academic standards in many states. (See Chart 2.) Because states
retain control over the content of the exams and decide what
constitutes proficiency on the exams, several states have begun
lowering their testing standards in the face of federal
sanctions -- a problem that creators of the bill recognized could
Scholars have referred to this scenario as "the race to the
bottom." Congress hoped to challenge states to provide a proficient
level of Education to all students. A far more likely scenario is
that states will simply lower passing thresholds to absurdly low
levels to avoid federal sanctions. The race to the bottom will not
only doom NCLB as a reform strategy, but also wreck public school
transparency in the process.
Texas: Leader in the Race to the
Education reforms in Texas stretching back to the 1980s inspired
and informed the construction of NCLB. Texas developed a set of
academic standards and exams -- the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and
Skills (TAKS), formerly Texas Assessment of Academic Skills
(TAAS) -- to test those skills. The state broke down student
performance by ethnicity and socioeconomic status, setting the
template for NCLB. The reform strategy theory was to implement a
system of testing and to create consequences for failure and social
pressure for improvement.
This Texas system became the model for the nation when Bush
Administration officials crafted No Child Left Behind. However, the
law that emerged has created incentives to hide problems, not to
solve them -- including in Texas.
Texas has shown limited improvement on reliable indicators, such
as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The
state has seen slow progress toward lowering racial achievement
gaps in 4th grade reading. Between 1992 and 2005, the percentage of
white students in Texas scoring "below basic" in reading dropped
from 29 percent to 21 percent. During the same period,
African-American students scoring below basic dropped from 61
percent to 51 percent.
On its face, this appears to show progress, but Texas academic
standards have dropped at the same time. Future progress in Texas
may be even more gradual than that achieved during the past 15
Harvard professor Paul Peterson and American Enterprise
Institute scholar Rick Hess have graded state academic standards
used for accountability exams. Petersen and Hess compared the
percentages of children scoring proficient on the NAEP to the
percentages scoring proficient on state exams used under No Child
Left Behind. They performed this analysis for both 2003 and 2005 to
rank each state and to see which states had toughened their
standards and which states had simplified their tests in one way or
Petersen ranked Texas standards in both 2003 and 2005, giving
them scores of F and D+, respectively. Chart 2 illustrates the
weakness of the Texas standards by comparing proficiency on NAEP
and the state TAKS exam in 2005. Although Texas improved from an F
to a D+, looking at a broader period shows that the disparity
between state exam results and NAEP scores has grown since the
In short, the state exam in Texas has been made very easy to
pass, and the lowering of cut scores (passing thresholds) is the
prime suspect. For example, students needed to answer only 29 of 60
questions correctly to pass the mathematics section of the
Current NCLB proficiency requirements are a fraction of what
they will be in a few years. In short, this problem will become
Lowering academic standards not only undermines NCLB's chance to
succeed as an Education reform, but also destroys basic public
school data transparency. A review of the top 200 performing Dallas
area elementary schools, ranked by their performance on the TAKS
4th grade mathematics exams by GreatSchools, shows that the
lowest math passing rate is 93 percent, with 28 schools with
100 percent of students scoring proficient. Meanwhile, these
impressive scores conceal the achievement gap, which appears to
have been eliminated.
As a practical matter, suburban Dallas public schools no longer
have academic transparency. We do not really know much about
academic performance in these schools, other than that they can
pass a very easy exam. Specifically:
A parent choosing among suburban Dallas schools cannot make a
truly informed judgment because these schools are all "perfect" or
"near perfect" according to state tests;
A school administrator seeking to judge the effectiveness of a
new tutoring or after-school program has little data available on
which to make a judgment; and
A voter seeking to judge school board candidates based on
academic outcomes will be left in the dark.
Ironically, NCLB has compromised transparency in the state that
led the way to the federal program intended to provide public
Arizona in Hot Pursuit
According to Petersen and Hess, Arizona standards suffered the
biggest decline between 2003 and 2005, dropping from a B- to a D+.
The Arizona Board of Education dramatically lowered cut scores
during this period.
For example, in 2003, a student was required to answer 73
percent of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) reading
questions correctly to pass the 8th grade reading exam, but in
2005, the student was required to answer only 59 percent
correctly. By lowering cut scores, Arizona kept
schools out of the NCLB failing category by increasing the
percentage of Hispanic students that passed, as Chart 3
The left columns for each year represent Annual Measurable
Objectives, the NCLB-mandated goal for percentage of students in
each student subgroup that must pass AIMS. The right columns
represent the percent of Hispanic students who the state defines as
proficient in the subject by virtue of having passed AIMS. The
percentage of proficient Hispanic students in 8th grade math more
than quadrupled between 2004 and 2005.
The key to understanding this chart is to compare the right
(AIMS) column for 2004 to the left (AMO) column for 2005. The vast
majority of Arizona public schools would have had trouble meeting
the 2005 standard for their Hispanic students.
In 2004, only 11 percent of Hispanic students passed, and the
minimum passing threshold was scheduled to move to 21 percent the
next year. Rather than improving student learning, Arizona simply
lowered the proficiency standard by reducing the number of
questions that a student must answer correctly to achieve
"proficiency" in order to comply with federal policy requirements.
By dropping the passing threshold, the percentage of Hispanic
students passing the test jumped from 11 percent to 46 percent in
In short, states do not seem to be living up to the goals of
NCLB because it created incentives to lower cut scores rather than
to address fundamental problems in the public Education system.
Other States in the Race to the
There is good reason to believe that this problem will soon
become apparent in other states. In 2006, researchers from the
University of California compared state-level test score data to
NAEP scores from 1992 through 2005 for a dozen diverse states. The
researchers found that proficiency rates on state tests have
traditionally exceeded proficiency rates on the NAEP exam. They
also reported that the gap between state test scores and states'
performance on the NAEP has widened in 10 of 12 states since No
Child Left Behind was passed in 2002.
Professor Bruce Fuller, lead author of the report, explained why
No Child Left Behind could be a factor: "State leaders are under
enormous pressure to show that students are making progress. So
they are finding inventive ways of showing higher test scores."
As proficiency goals continue to increase with the approach of
the federal goal of all students scoring proficient by 2014, it is
likely that this problem will only worsen. The prospect of a
full-scale nationwide race to the bottom in state testing should be
a serious cause for concern among Members of Congress and a
compelling reason to address this problem in the upcoming
Federal Management or
Citizen Ownership of Education?
In his 2007 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush
Now the task is to build on the success, without watering down
standards, without taking control from local communities, and
without backsliding and calling it reform. . . . The No Child Left
Behind Act has worked for America's children -- and I ask Congress to
reauthorize this good law.
NCLB has placed a long-overdue emphasis on academic results and
reducing achievement gaps, moving the conversation forward in terms
of emphasizing outputs rather than just inputs. However, NCLB has
created an incentive structure that does not reconcile various
stakeholders' interests. As a result, the force of the political
interests pressing for apparent short-term gains is greater than
that for improving real long-term student achievement.
The resulting race to the bottom fundamentally threatens NCLB as
a reform strategy by compromising the key element: transparency of
results. As reauthorization approaches, two strategies have emerged
to address this problem: increasing federal power over Education or
restoring state and local authority over education.
The Federal Strategy. Some say it is time for national
standards and national assessments. A bill introduced by Senator
Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI),
the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for All Kids
(SPEAK) Act (S. 224 and H.R. 325), would create voluntary national
standards and grant states up to $4 million each to adopt national
math and science standards.
Supporters argue that this would end the gaming and race to the
bottom, but national standards represent not only a
constitutionally inappropriate course, but most likely an
ineffective one. There is no reason to believe that federal
officials would write solid standards or that they would be immune
to the political pressures decried in the states.
Any attempt to erect national standards and assessments will
only serve to aggravate further the growing gap between the
American people and their public schools, contributing to the sense
that these are government schools. In other words, we would
risk sacrificing responsibility for educating our children on the
altar of accountability.
In the end, accountability and transparency in Education should
empower parents and taxpayers to take greater ownership of
Education in America. They should be vehicles to reinvigorate the
relationship of the American people with their schools rather than
merely mechanisms employed by government officials to oversee and
hold government schools accountable.
The State-Level Strategy. The alternative strategy is to
end the trend toward greater federal power by restoring greater
state and local control of American education. Senator Jim DeMint
(R-SC), Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), and Representative Pete
Hoekstra (R-MI) have proposed the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to
Success (A-PLUS) Act (S. 893 and H.R. 1539) based on this approach.
Under the A-PLUS Act, states would have the opportunity to opt out
of NCLB and reassert their policymaking authority in public
education. States would continue state-level academic assessments
and public reporting free from the testing and accountability
requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Restoring state control of state testing policies could protect
the academic transparency that is needed to hold public schools
accountable for performance to parents, taxpayers, and
policymakers. Without this transparency, school administrators
cannot judge the effectiveness of changes in school practices.
Citizens and policymakers cannot judge the direction of public
schools and therefore cannot make informed decisions about school
reforms. Most important, parents need transparency to determine
whether or not their children are receiving a quality Education and
to choose schools that match their children's needs.
Freeing states from the burden of complying with NCLB testing
requirements will not fix all of the problems in American
Education, but little evidence suggests that NCLB as currently
constituted will fix them either. Yet freeing states from this
burden would help to end the race to the bottom that threatens to
destroy transparency in public education. Because the National
Assessment of Educational Progress would continue to be
administered to a sample of students across the nation, providing a
low-stakes audit of academic performance in the states, advocates
of strong state standards and testing policies would be able to
make their case for reforms on a state-by-state basis through the
process of federalism.
Canceling the Race to the Bottom. Such an approach may
not appeal to those who would like to impose a single national
solution, such as national standards, on states. However,
policymakers need to recognize the danger of further centralizing
American education. The states' experiences have shown the
challenges that policymakers face in creating quality state
standards and testing systems. Congress and the Department of
Education would face the same challenges in creating national
standards, but the stakes would be much greater.
Leaders in the standards movement should recognize that the
federal government cannot and will not maintain academic rigor in
state accountability systems. Because of NCLB, states have begun
the process of lowering standards, and the path is clear for more
states to join the race to the bottom as NCLB's passing
requirements increase. In fact, NCLB may inadvertently have played
a role in setting back the standards movement, creating a false
sense of security. While standards and accountability regimes can
play a productive role in improving public schools, the integrity
of such systems must be fiercely defended state by state and on an
The race to the bottom represents a threat to the existence of
the standards strategy. If allowed to play out fully, the race will
destroy the credibility of top-down accountability. The only
effective and constitutionally appropriate way to preserve
accountability is, first, to ensure that the federal government
does no harm by eliminating federal pressure for lower state
standards and, second, for advocates of standards and
accountability to avoid the mirage of federal fixes, such as
national standards, and roll up their sleeves and fight for what
they believe at the state level.
Great progress is possible through state-level efforts. If the
charter school movement had waited for the federal government to
achieve its goals, there would not be 4,000 charter schools
operating in 40 states. The standards movement achieved a great
deal state by state before NCLB passed and must again take the lead
to maintain the credibility of the strategy.
When Congress considers reauthorization of No Child Left Behind,
it should address a fundamental problem in the law's design.
Specifically, federal requirements have led to a race to the bottom
in state testing that threatens to destroy transparency of results
in American education. Congress can solve this problem by ending No
Child Left Behind's high-stakes testing policies and allowing
states to opt out of NCLB's requirements.
Shifting greater policymaking authority back to the state level
would protect academic transparency in American education. Parents,
citizens, and policymakers would continue to receive the
information about students' and schools' performance through state
testing. Maintaining this transparency would ensure that all
stakeholders have the needed information about how best to educate
children. This would begin to restore citizen ownership of American
education -- a necessary step for future efforts to strengthen
American public schools.
Eugene Hickok, Ph.D., is a
Bradley Education Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and has served
as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education and Pennsylvania's Secretary
of Education. Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., is Vice President of Research
at the Goldwater Institute.
Show references in this report
Public Law 107-110.
Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National
Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics
2005, Table 152, at www.nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d05/tables/dt05_152.asp
(June 4, 2007).
Bruce Fuller, Kathryn Gesicki, Erin Kang, and
Joseph Wright, "Is the No Child Left Behind Act Working? The
Reliability of How States Track Achievement," University of
California, Berkeley, Policy Analysis for California Education
Working Paper No. 06-1, 2006, at /static/reportimages/2B796B2B42C453DFEBC3C90567EAA452.pdf (June
Barry Goldwater, "Some Notes on Education," in
Conscience of a Conservative (Shepherdsville, Ky.: Victor
Publishing Company, 1960), pp. 77-81.
Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg, "The Administrative Burden of No Child
Left Behind," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1406, March 23, 2007,
and U.S. General Accounting Office, Education Finance: Extent of
Federal Funding in State Education Agencies, GAO/HEHS-95-3, October
1994, p. 2, at http:// archive.gao.gov/f0902a/152626.pdf (June
Urbanski, quoted in Matthew Miller, The Two Percent Solution
(Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Book Group, 2003), p. 132.
Arizona Department of Education, Adequate
Yearly Progress, Vol. 2 of Arizona's School Accountability System:
Technical Manual, April 2005, at www.ade.state.az.us/azlearns/2005NCLBTechManualWorking.pdf
(June 12, 2007).
Sandy Kress, "Confessions of a 'No Child Left
Behind' Supporter," Education Next, 2007 No. 2 (Spring 2007), at www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/6017586.html
(June 12, 2007).
E. Peterson and Fredrick Hess, "Keeping an Eye on State Standards,"
Education Next, 2006 No. 3 (Summer 2006), at Paul E. Peterson and Fredrick Hess, "Keeping an Eye on
State Standards," Education Next, 2006 No. 3 (Summer 2006), at
www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/3211601.html (June 12,
2007). (June 12, 2007).
Mathematics TAKS Scores for the 2005-2006
school year for 200 elementary schools within 30 miles of Zip code
75201 from Great Schools, Web site, at www.greatschools.net (June 20, 2007).
For a discussion of the recent cut score
changes, see TUSDStats, "Spring 2003-04 AIMS to Spring 2004-05 AIMS
Percentage Comparison," Tucson (Arizona) Unified School District,
Department of Accountability and Research, at http://tusdstats.tusd.k12.az.us/planning/resources/aims/
05changes/rawscoreaimscuts_04_vs_05.htm (June 12, 2007).
Fuller et al., "Is the No Child Left Behind
Act Working?" esp. p. 12, Table 2.
Jay Matthews, "Study Shows More Discrepancies
Between State, National Assessments of Student Proficiency," The
Washington Post, April 16, 2007, p. B2, at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/
article/2007/04/15/AR2007041501099.html (June 5, 2007).
George W. Bush, "State of the Union," The
White House, January 23, 2007, at www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/01/
20070123-2.html (June 19, 2007).
Press release, "Dodd, Ehlers Announce
Legislation Establishing Voluntary Core Standards in Math and
Science," Office of Senator Christopher Dodd, January 8, 2007, at
For more on the A-PLUS Act, see Dan Lips,
"Reforming No Child Left Behind by Allowing States to Opt Out: An
A-PLUS for Federalism," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2044,
June 19, 2007, at www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg2044.cfm.
Testing requirements in No Child Left Behind are causing a "race tothe bottom" that threatens to eliminate academic transparency aboutstudent performance, denying parents, citizens, and policymakersneeded information on school performance. Congress should endfederal goals for student testing and allow states to opt out ofNCLB and reassert their policymaking authority.
Education Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Bradley Fellow in Education Policy
Read More >>
Matthew Ladner, Ph.D.
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