Determining ‘Progress’ and Feeling the Heat

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To the Editor:

The microscopic review of state test scores by the Education Trust, ever-faithful advocates for the No Child Left Behind Act, suggests that a bit of progress has been made in several states since 2002 ("Report: States See Test-Score Gains"; "Fuller's Work Touches Off Controversy," Oct. 20, 2004). But in its rush to respond to our data ("Are Test Scores Really Rising?" Commentary, Oct. 13, 2004), quickly trailing behind U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s almost-instantaneous response with yet another set of numbers, the trust spoke past our two original points.

First, in light of steady gains in children’s reading performance through the late 1990s in large states with strong accountability programs, the blips we see in the two years after the “No Child” law was signed are modest at best. The Education Trust candidly admits that even states showing gains will fall far short of universal proficiency by 2014. So federal sanctions will begin to kick in and intensify. Interpreting “progress” also depends on which baseline year is used, depending on whether one assumes that the “No Child” law was felt by teachers in its first full year of implementation.

Second, it’s simply too early to make any claims about the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind initiative. Our interpretation of the reading trend data is simply that there is no consistent pattern of gains across the 15 states that we examined. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are equally inconclusive.

It took the Bush administration nine months to actually call the states to see whether the evidence backed the president’s initial claim, advanced last January, that the No Child Left Behind Act is raising test scores. In this light, Secretary Paige’s charge that our research center was “politically motivated” in releasing the data is rather ironic. Many states did not release their spring 2004 testing results until September; some have yet to do so.

To intentionally hold back evidence when federal education policy is being hotly debated would have been an egregiously political act. Yes, the kitchen got rather hot, even blasting forth one of my institute’s co-directors, who sought some relief. But the university must push to keep government honest, something academics have done since the 16th century.

Washington advocates in and outside government should be asking whether their top-down accountability strategy is yielding sufficient results over time. Like any complicated public policy, the “No Child” law and its maze of mandates will need serious adjustments. We also need an independent panel—funded by private foundations—to track state progress over the coming decade. This could complement work by the NAEP panel, telling us whether our children are performing at higher levels against states’ own learning standards.

Bruce Fuller
Professor of Education and Public Policy
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, Calif.

Vol. 24, Issue 10, Page 39

Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as Determining ‘Progress’ and Feeling the Heat

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