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Opinion
Federal Commentary

Reauthorize NCLB With National Standards

By Patrick Mattimore — October 08, 2007 4 min read

Suppose you show up for a track meet at your local high school to watch your daughter perform. She’s in the high-jump competition and she clears the bar, which is set at 6 feet. None of the other competitors can clear the height, but the competition’s organizers decide to allow individuals to submit testimonials from their coaches that they had cleared the height sometime during practice. Not the best method of judging performance, eh?

The federal No Child Left Behind Act is already flawed because it allows states to set low standards. Proposals to make the law more flexible would work the same way as our hypothetical high-jump contest, allowing states and districts even more loopholes. We don’t need to give school districts additional license to construct fun-house mirrors that distort our kids’ poor performance. We need national subject-matter standards, such as those represented by testing under the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Under the NCLB law, students in grades 3-8 are tested annually in reading and math; students are tested once in high school. It was inevitable that such an ambitious education reform policy would run into some growing pains and stumbling blocks. But now, as Congress considers the law’s reauthorization, it’s remarkable that legislators and the Bush administration are constructing new stumbling blocks, rather than sweeping away the detritus from the old ones.

Unfortunately, it is becoming clearer and clearer that too many lawmakers and public servants aren’t really serious about addressing educational deficiencies, but would rather simply appear to be. John Edwards is just the latest 2008 candidate for political office (in his case, president of the United States) to suggest that we need flexible ways to “measure higher-order-thinking skills, including open-ended essays, oral examinations, and projects and experiments.”

For the same reason we don’t use flexible high bars that will bend low to artificially assure success in the high jump, we must insist that we not bend academic standards to make it appear that students are succeeding when they aren’t. The No Child Left Behind law should not be about flexibility and fairness for schools and teachers, but about progress and accountability by and for students. U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., one of the original architects of NCLB, now says that states should be “allowed to develop better tests that more accurately measure what all students have learned.”

We don’t need better tests. We need to use a single set of national tests.

Rep. Miller suggests that schools should be able to use additional accountability measures, such as graduation rates, to prove that schools and their students are successful. But graduation rates can be manipulated by schools that inflate grades and set low standards. Graduation rates reveal nothing about whether schools are producing educated students.

The congressman’s expressed belief that we need “multiple measures of success” that “can no longer reflect just basic skills and memorization” reveals a lack of understanding of pedagogy. Learning proceeds hierarchically. Learning at the highest levels depends on students’ having attained prerequisite knowledge and skills at lower levels. Students who can’t master basic skills will be unable to develop the kind of “critical-thinking skills and the ability to apply knowledge to new and challenging contexts” that Rep. Miller correctly asserts they need.

See Also

For the latest news on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, read our blog NCLB: Act II.

Rep. Miller also would ease requirements for English-language learners and students with disabilities. Those suggestions are tantamount to providing boosts for special populations, but miss the point that those students will then graduate with insufficient skills to compete in society.

Everyone in Washington seems determined to tiptoe around the multiple-standards elephant in the room. Even the most fervent of NCLB’s sponsors, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., won’t now suggest that we require a uniform standard by which to judge our students’ success. Not a single presidential candidate has dared suggest national standards for the testing under No Child Left Behind.

It’s hard to understand why. Surely, we want students in Mississippi and California and Vermont to be able to do the same sorts of math problems. And know the same quality content in English, social studies, and science. Without a common measuring stick, we will never know to what extent all our children are making the grade. We can’t really understand their progress (or lack thereof) if we must simultaneously watch and try to interpret hundreds of diverse “multiple measures.”

Sending a reworked NCLB back to sea without reinforcing it with a single set of national subject-matter standards ensures that it will sink. Regrettably, it seems that the lack of clear performance measures might be exactly the type of escape-hatch excuse to which our policymakers would like to cling.

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