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Published in Print: October 13, 2004, as Are Test Scores Really Rising?


Are Test Scores Really Rising?

School Reform and Campaign Rhetoric

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The pivotal question voters might forcefully put to both candidates: How would you strengthen the nation’s teaching force?

Call it honest pride or calculated strategy. As the election nears, President Bush is trumpeting in higher notes the apparent success of his No Child Left Behind Act reforms, aiming to erode Sen. John Kerry’s support among women and moderate voters.

“We’re making great progress. We’re closing the achievement gap,” Mr. Bush triumphantly claimed at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania last month. Before throngs of cheering delegates to the Republican convention in New York City, the president explained how he’s turning the schools around: “Those who spend your tax dollars must be held accountable; … when a school district receives federal funds we expect [students] to learn.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige came close to crying out “mission accomplished” during his prime-time convention speech, proclaiming that “all across America, test scores are rising, students are learning, the achievement gap is closing.”

It turns out that student performance is not climbing in most parts of the nation.

The very day before the president’s attempt at the Republican convention to signal progress on domestic issues, news broke that high school seniors’ performance on the sat had leveled off last spring, after moving upward for several years.

California parents awoke at summer’s end to read that their children’s earlier progress in reading and mathematics achievement had lost steam. Students’ learning curves stalled out or simply fell in more than 60 percent of the state’s elementary schools, compared with achievement levels in the prior year. School performance rose sharply in the late 1990s, as California’s own accountability program kicked in. Now the state’s students have climbed up onto a long dry plateau with no relief in sight.

Midwestern states display the same anemic pattern. In Missouri, the share of 3rd graders deemed proficient or advanced in reading has been flat since 2001, the year Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. Reading scores in states as varied as Colorado, New York, Tennessee, and Wisconsin have been flat or inching downward since the enactment of that federal legislation.

In fact, 4th grade reading scores have faltered or declined in 11 of the nation’s 15 most populous states that have published trend data over the past three years, according to a new compilation by scholars from the Stanford-University of California research institute Policy Analysis for California Education, or pace.

In Sen. John Kerry’s Massachusetts, the percentage of 4th graders testing as proficient in reading has fallen by 4 points since 2002. In Mr. Bush’s Texas, 4th grade reading scores fell last spring, compared with the prior year. New York state’s 4th graders showed remarkable progress in English language arts during the late 1990s. But the percentage scoring in the top two levels began to stall out in 2001, then fell by 2 points last spring. In Connecticut, a state that invests heavily in teacher quality, 4th grade reading scores have declined slightly since 2002. (Detailed statistics will be posted online at

So what’s the empirical ground on which President Bush stakes his upbeat claim? It’s actually just one number: an important 9-point gain in children’s math scores among 4th graders observed between 2000 and 2003, reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and cited by the White House.

Even this isolated gain, while hopeful, can’t be attributed to the Bush reform program. The trend line for math began to rise over a decade ago, as state-level accountability reforms kicked in, with elementary math scores climbing 13 points between 1990 and 2000. Children sat for the naep math assessment just one year after the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law; it’s unlikely that any policy effects had yet been felt.

Naep reading scores among the nation’s 4th graders rose 3 points between 1992 and 2000, but have flattened out since the spring of 2002.

You might surmise that faltering test scores are bad news for the White House, given how much political capital—and fiscal capital—the president has spent on school reform. But even as the earlier student gains stall or turn south, more, not fewer, schools are meeting their “adequate yearly progress” requirements, according to early returns.

An array of governors and state school chiefs, many of them Republicans, have vehemently protested the many tripwires embedded in the arcane maze of No Child Left Behind regulations. Detonate one hair trigger—by testing too few students, failing to show growth among over 30 student subgroups, or simply being in a state that naively set ambitious achievement standards—and the law instantly sets off explosions within a school district.

So Mr. Bush’s Education Department began cutting the states some slack last spring. The required share of students tested can now be averaged over multiple years; results for children with limited English proficiency are being factored in differently; and the measurement error involved in testing children, especially in smaller schools, is now more liberally tolerated.

All this raises federal pass rates, allowing governors to send out buoyant press releases detailing how more schools are meeting their growth requirements—even as children’s reading scores are stalling out or falling. Virginia’s superintendent of schools, Jo Lynn DeMary, celebrated at summer’s end, boasting that 69 percent of the commonwealth’s schools now meet federal growth standards, compared to 58 percent in the prior year. But no growth in the average child’s reading and language arts scores actually occurred over the two years.

A portion of these regulatory shifts make sense, easing the micromanagement so painfully exhibited in the first rendition of the federal rules. But just weeks ago, the administration was accusing its critics of being racist for exercising, in Mr. Bush’s words, “the soft bigotry of lower expectations” for children’s performance. Now we see that achievement standards are not absolute after all; they are politically negotiated.

To be fair, few policy analysts argue that the “No Child” legislation is causing the erosion of earlier gains in children’s reading scores around the nation. More likely, Mr. Bush’s timing is simply unfortunate: Now that teachers have exhaustively taught to the tests, and state standards have usefully taken root in classrooms, wringing out additional gains from mechanical accountability regimes is unlikely.

The Bush administration is ducking the fact that Washington’s long-term influence on children’s learning curves will diminish until the deeper constraints facing many schools are confronted: rising levels of child poverty, sinking teacher salaries, and unions that turn a blind eye as strong teachers flee inner-city and rural schools.

The nation’s poverty rate rose by almost a half-point last year, the third yearly rise in a row, to 12.5 percent, or one of every eight Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The administration does not like to talk about the effects of poverty on children’s school performance: Instead, public school managers and edu cation interest groups are the culprits. Only in August, while vigorously defending the uneven performance of charter schools, did Bush allies finally recognize that maybe children sinking deeper into poverty don’t achieve at the same level as middle-class kids.

Still, swing voters may be having difficulty in grasping how John Kerry would do any better. Sen. Kerry has proposed more ample funding for education when school authorities agree to prune incompetent teachers—a more resourceful version of tough love than simply counting on the “No Child” law’s big stick and tangled regulations. But overall, it remains unclear how Mr. Kerry would strengthen Washington’s role when it comes to school reform. Would he, for example, require that schools repeatedly deemed as failing under the Bush program be turned into charter schools?

Now we see that achievement standards are not absolute after all; they are politically negotiated.

Sen. Kerry is hammering Mr. Bush on his inconsistencies—some might say the president’s flip-flops. On the popular issue of preschool expansion, the president told convention delegates in New York that “now is the time to make Head Start an early-learning program to teach all our children to read.” Yet the president’s last budget aimed to cut a half-million families from child care and after-school programs. Mr. Bush would even slice the child-care block grant program that his father created in 1990. But Sen. Kerry’s half-hearted alternative is to boost the child-care tax credit, which does nothing to aid poor parents who don’t pay federal taxes.

The pivotal question voters might forcefully put to both candidates: How would you strengthen the nation’s teaching force?

Data from a recent national survey of more than 500 school districts show that their teacher salaries have declined by an average of nearly 2 percent in real dollars since the mid-1990s, according to Education Week. Teachers now earn 22 percent less than other college graduates. Test scores have risen in states like Michigan, where legislatures are investing more heavily in teacher quality.

Sen. Kerry’s trust fund for school quality would help states boost teacher salaries. The president stresses the “No Child” legislation’s mandate that all teachers be highly qualified, then grants more than $22 billion in annual tax cuts for millionaires, rather than mounting a serious effort to recruit and retain fine teachers.

Worried parents and conservative critics have long pushed educators to get beyond rhetoric, to provide hard evidence showing how their reforms boost children’s performance. Voters should hold President Bush accountable to the same standard. Yet, until his challenger, Sen. Kerry, articulates a clearer blueprint for improving our schools, Mr. Bush’s hyperbole may well stick in the hearts and minds of those coveted, still-elusive swing voters.

Vol. 24, Issue 07, Pages 40,52

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