Matthew Ladner

NCLB needs work

Posted on August 14, 2007 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Matthew Ladner
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When No Child Left Behind passed in 2001, it enjoyed wide bipartisan support.

Now there are growing concerns that the bill to reauthorize the act will undermine the public school transparency it sought to establish.

NCLB requires schools to test fourth- and eighth-grade students and make the test results public. Schools face sanctions for underperformance.

The requirement for how many students must pass the tests increases each year until reaching 100 percent in 2014.

NCLB required testing proficiency but left control over test content and the definition of "proficient" with the states.
Sadly, states have begun avoiding federal sanctions by making their tests easier.

As the tests become easier to pass, fewer schools are labeled "failing." Education policy scholars refer to this as "the race to the bottom."

This problem will only worsen as the federally mandated passing threshold increases.

Without a fix from Congress, students will take meaningless exams, hard-won gains in public school transparency will be lost, and testing will suffer a fatal blow as a credible education reform strategy.

How did we get into this situation? In the late 1950s, Sen. Barry Goldwater fought a losing battle against what ultimately became the first law providing federal funding for K-12 schools.

Goldwater abhorred 12 federal mandates in the bill. Twelve mandates would be extremely modest by today's standards, but Goldwater correctly identified them as a camel's nose under the tent, warning, "Federal aid to education invariably means federal control of education."

Since then, the federal government has steadily increased its control over schools, with some successes and many failures.

Now this fundamental flaw in No Child Left Behind threatens to fulfill Goldwater's prophetic warning.

Congress will consider reauthorizing NCLB, but the race to the bottom has already begun. It is not too late to step away from the ledge, but we must do so now.

First and foremost, the federal government should do no harm.

Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jim DeMint of South Carolina have a bill (the A PLUS Act) that would allow states to design their own testing and accountability systems in cooperation with the federal government.
States could opt out of NCLB mandates (but keep the federal funds) by creating Performance Agreements that focus funds on successful programs, outline plans to improve achievement and narrow achievement gaps.

In exchange for this flexibility, states would be required to continue making student achievement data transparent and accessible to parents and policymakers.

But the 100 percent proficiency by 2014 mandate would be eliminated.

This approach respects state prerogatives and ensures students are taking meaningful tests without the high-stakes nature of the current NCLB mandate.

Arizona, more than any other state, has led efforts to get control of education back to the states.

Sen. Jon Kyl and Reps. Jeff Flake, Trent Franks, Rick Renzi and John Shadegg - all Arizona Republicans - support the Cornyn-DeMint proposal.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne flew to Washington to give a speech in support of it.

Presidential candidate John McCain, who holds Barry Goldwater's former Senate seat, and Gov. Janet Napolitano are also well positioned to lead on this issue.

McCain voted for NCLB, but he has yet to comment on the race to the bottom effect. Napolitano has denounced NCLB and could use her bully-pulpit as chairman of the National Governors Association to embrace a constructive alternative.

It is no accident that Arizona's Congressional leaders have taken a leading role in this debate.

Arizonans have a strong preference to manage their own affairs. There's no question we need to have high expectations of schools and students, but mandates from Washington won't get us where we want to be.

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