Former President Bill Clinton said last week that the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires too much testing and that if he were still in charge, he would work to amend it.
Speaking to a receptive audience of thousands of participants at the National School Boards Association’s annual convention here, Mr. Clinton said, “If I were dictator, I would get with you and make some changes in that Leave No Child Behind Act.”
“You don’t need to test every child, every year,” he said, in apparent reference to the law’s requirement that students be tested annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, as well as at least once in high school.
“Maybe three times” over a student’s K-12 academic career would be enough, he suggested.
Mr. Clinton was in the San Francisco Bay Area to deliver several speeches and to make appearances at fundraisers for the presidential campaign of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
His main topic for the April 15 NSBA session was his recent efforts to promote healthier eating habits among young people. He touched on the initiatives of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, which include working to reduce the caloric and fat content of snack foods and to get the media to stress healthy eating and the benefits of exercise.
“We’re working with the schools, not just on students, but also on teachers and other school personnel,” Mr. Clinton said.
The former president didn’t mention Sen. Clinton’s White House ambitions for 2008, but he warned the audience to be skeptical of health-care proposals during the campaign.
“Everything the presidential candidates of both parties are going to say about health care could be rendered inoperable by this nation’s obesity epidemic,” he said.
Some 14,000 school board members were gathered here from across the country, and it appeared that most of them were seated in the cavernous main hall of the Moscone Center. This was a convention that Mr. Clinton might have attended as an NSBA member if he had followed through on the idea he floated several times near the end of his presidential tenure that the only future elective office he might seek was service on the “local school board.”
He didn’t mention that idea here, but he told participants that the challenges they face in overseeing public schools “make elected school board member, after president of the United States, the toughest job in the country.”
Mr. Clinton said that when he was president, “there was never a time when every problem in education hadn’t been solved by someone, somewhere.”
But problems were being solved in pockets, he said, such as inner-city schools that overcame the odds in Washington or Chicago.
“Why can’t we replicate excellence?” he said. “And not just more tests, and teaching to the test? That’s what I’d like to see.”
“But that’s not what I came here to talk about,” Mr. Clinton said, to laughter from the audience.
Concerns over the No Child Left Behind law were much in evidence at the NSBA’s April 14-17 convention. The law—championed by President Bush and passed by Congress with large, bipartisan majorities in late 2001—holds schools accountable for the academic progress of their students, using a range of potential sanctions, and includes mandates in such areas as teacher quality.
The organization’s official position is that it welcomes the goals of the school improvement law, but that the law’s first five years have brought a host of implementation issues for districts. As Congress debates the law’s reauthorization, the NSBA is backing bills that would amend it in several key areas.
It would like greater flexibility in testing students in special education and English-language learners. It calls for several changes governing the measurement of adequate yearly progress in schools and districts, such as that they be subject to sanctions only when the same student subgroup fails to make AYP in the same subject for two consecutive years or more, instead of after just one failure under the current law.
At one session here, participants filled a meeting room to hear a presentation on the NCLB measure and the “law of unfunded mandates,” delivered by Ronald Wenkart, the general counsel of the Orange County, Calif., education department.
To the group of school board members, mostly nonlawyers, Mr. Wenkart delivered a short lesson about how Congress passed the law under its powers from the spending clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.
Theoretically, states aren’t subject to the law’s requirements if they don’t accept the federal funding that comes with it, he said.
“But there’s just enough money so that a state cannot turn it down, politically,” Mr. Wenkart said.
“The states don’t feel the pain of the shortfall [in federal funding for the law]. They take the money and pass the pain down to you,” the local school boards, he said.
Earlier here, at the meeting of the NSBA Council of School Attorneys, Washington lawyer John W. Borkowski likened the law’s demands to a basketball tournament in which every team must win.
“If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are champions, and coaches will be held accountable,” Mr. Borkowski said. “All kids will be expected to have the same basketball skills at the same time and in the same conditions. … All kids will play basketball at a proficient level.”
Talented players, he continued, would be asked to practice on their own, because coaches would be busy with athletes who weren’t interested in basketball or who had limited athletic ability.
“This will create a new age of sports where every school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimal goals,” Mr. Borkowski said of such a system. “If no child gets ahead, then no child will be left behind.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as Clinton Criticizes Testing Required by NCLB