Among the many issues the Obama administration will need to deal with in the months ahead is the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But this cannot be done intelligently until the government recognizes one of the biggest problems facing American education. It is not unqualified teachers, unmotivated students, uninvolved parents, or even ineffective policymakers. These are only the symptoms of a much larger problem.
The problem to which I refer may be hard for the public and policymakers to grasp, yet it is pervasive, and has been going on, invisibly and anonymously, for decades. I’ve given it a name that recalls earlier critiques of testing and test-scoring: the “Lake Wobegon delusion.” This is the belief that everything is OK with my child in my school, and it is everyone and everywhere else that are failing.
This delusion is so widespread that with every administration of national assessments, teachers of the lowest-achieving students routinely are more satisfied with their students’ performance than teachers of the highest achievers. How can this be? It is because teachers have no idea of what is going on in other parts of the country. After more than a century of education reform, we still do not have a common metric for judging how the success of a school in California compares with the success of a school in New York, or whether a student in Texas can read as well as a student in Ohio.
An analogy may help illustrate why this is a problem. In economics, we have an information infrastructure that allows us to know how the earnings and profits of a company compare with those of every other company in the United States. It would be unthinkable to try to monitor the economy if businesses in every state were allowed to have their own accounting standards. In education, however, this is exactly what we do have for our students and schools.
The information-reporting system in American education is fundamentally flawed. Several decades ago, researchers uncovered the fact that all 50 states were reporting themselves as above the national average. The delusion that we are all above average—like the children in humorist Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon—persists today with No Child Left Behind. Under the law, each state develops its own accountability tests. But many set low performance standards in order to report high levels of adequate yearly progress, or AYP. The ability to use a low standard, but call it “proficient,” is a kind of jabberwocky that obfuscates accountability.
Indeed, some of the lowest-performing states (based on external indicators) report the highest passing rates on their own tests. Their success is a kind of fool’s gold that makes them think they are doing well, when in reality they are not. This practice is not a deception; it is a delusion. As long as states think they are doing well, and the federal government turns a blind eye, there is no urgency to take corrective action.
There is only one way to get past the Lake Wobegon delusion: Give parents and policymakers accurate, timely, and comparable data for schools and students—data that will hold educators accountable.
To do this, we must bring back a new and improved version of the voluntary national test. During the 1990s, President Bill Clinton pushed to create such a test in mathematics and reading, with parents as the intended recipients of individual student results. But many groups with vested interests in the status quo lobbied against the exam in Congress, which ultimately did not authorize it. Today, however, such a test would be even more relevant.
What would a modern version of such an exam look like? In brief, it would do the following:
• Be an examination rather than a test. An exam is a test with broad content coverage that teachers teach to and students spend a lot of time studying for.
• Cover critical subjects such as reading, math, and science, with annual assessments in each grade.
• Be internationally benchmarked in its content (what we expect students to learn) and achievement levels (how much we expect them to learn), to ensure that our students will be competitive in a global economy.
• Provide comparable data to parents and teachers on how well students reach challenging international achievement standards, as well as monitor how much progress individual students make from year to year.
• Include both multiple-choice and performance-assessment items, and be administered and scored through recent developments in computer-adaptive testing. This style of testing would make the exam cheaper and faster, with results immediately available to parents and teachers.
• Involve all 50 states in developing its content through a national consensus process, thereby guaranteeing that the exam would be seen as “national” and not “federal.” As part of this consensus process, we should look beyond our borders for the best curricula and pedagogical practices from around the world to incorporate into our thinking on ways to improve student learning.
• Be voluntary, although states or districts could choose to require it.
• Have a politically neutral, broadly representative, and independent policy board that would provide oversight. The important policy implications of the exam would necessitate such a board, which should be congressionally funded but independent of the government.
The reauthorized No Child Left Behind law could give states the option of using the voluntary national exam for reporting AYP. Knowledge is the antidote to the Lake Wobegon delusion, and once the veil of ignorance is lifted, and parents and teachers find out how their students and schools stack up against others, we will finally begin to have true educational accountability.
Educators in local schools are seldom excited when national policymakers opine about raising expectations. Deep down they understand that these pronouncements do not have the traction to affect what they do in actual classrooms and schools. They also realize that “monitoring” student progress is a vacuous goal if what is being monitored cannot be measured.
Currently, No Child Left Behind does not require comparative reports of student achievement across states. This is unfair to parents and students in those underperforming states that set low standards in order to claim high levels of success. Communities believe they are doing well educating their children when in fact they are not. The delusion also undermines laudable national policy efforts to improve the knowledge and skills of all students.
The Obama administration has committed itself to good public policy guided by good scientific data. A voluntary national examination would fix the most glaring problem with the No Child Left Behind law by finally providing the nation with a scientific, fair, and comparable way to see whether our students and schools are indeed on track.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week as How to Fix No Child Left Behind