Can NCLB Naiveté Become National-Standards Wisdom?

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To the Editor:

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, tells us that academic standards are “enormously discrepant from state to state, subject to subject, and from grade to grade,” and that “the centerpiece of standards-based reform may not be up to what we expect” (“Report Pans How States Set the Bar,” Oct. 10, 2007).

Of course, this variation comes as no surprise to many critics of the No Child Left Behind Act who predicted exactly this outcome in 2002. The federal law was birthed through a bizarre compromise during the hysteria following Sept. 11, 2001, when many Republican conservatives in Congress were loath to oppose President Bush on anything—but they found the idea of national standards and national tests abhorrent. So, a lunatic mix and match emerged in NCLB.

Even the specifics of Fordham’s new study are not new. The Northwest Evaluation Association conducted a similar study in 14 states and published similar results in 2003. ("'Proficient' Mark Shifts by State, Grade, Subject," Dec. 3, 2003.)

So why did Mr. Finn and his foundation fund this study now? It’s because he’s leading a new crusade for national academic standards and national tests. In “Can This Law Be Fixed? A Hard Look at the No Child Left Behind Remedies,” published in the American Enterprise Institute’s September edition of Education Outlook, Mr. Finn and Frederick M. Hess, the AEI’s director of education policy studies, argue that “all schools should be measured against a single set of national standards and uniform national tests.”

Yet in Fordham’s July publication Beyond the Basics, Mr. Finn and Diane Ravitch write: “We were wrong. We didn’t see how completely standards-based reform would turn into a basic-skills testing frenzy or the negative impact that it would have on educational quality.”

Mr. Finn admits that he was wrong about high-stakes standards and testing, that he was naive—“naively” is the descriptor Mr. Finn and Ms. Ravitch use—about the most important educational issue of our time.

Given this record of admitted error and naiveté, why should we believe Mr. Finn now when he says that national standards and testing will be any less destructive than state standards and testing—for the very same reasons?

David Marshak
Bellingham, Wash.

Vol. 27, Issue 11, Page 31

Published in Print: November 7, 2007, as Can NCLB Naiveté Become National-Standards Wisdom?
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