Secretary of Education Rod Paige is declaring the No Child Left Behind Act a success, arguing that there is ample evidence the law is improving student achievement. But linking test scores directly to federal policy is a risky business, and some say the Bush administration is getting way ahead of itself.
“I am pleased to report that the law is making a positive difference in millions of lives,” Secretary Paige said on Sept. 24 in his annual back-to-school address at the National Press Club here. “There is clear evidence of success, noticeable patterns of change, and upbeat reports all across the nation from a variety of sources. Simply stated: The law is working.”
Mr. Paige cited anecdotal evidence from several school districts, as well as state and national data.
He noted, for example, that 4th grade reading scores on a national test climbed from 2000 to 2003. He said the scores were flat during the 1990s, but are now showing upward movement.
“No Child Left Behind has ended that flat line,” he said. “While 4th grade reading scores between 1992 and 2000 remained stagnant, there has been a five-point increase in the last three years nationally.”
He highlighted gains for African-American and Hispanic 4th graders.
The scores cited, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, were for a test administered in early 2003. Given that the federal education law wasn’t signed until January 2002, and its implementation really began only in the fall of that year, Secretary Paige appears to be crediting the improvement to barely six months under the law.
“This is too quick,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s clearly a political use of test scores.”
The increase in the average score, to 218 on a 500-point scale, returned the average to about the 1992 level.
Mr. Shanahan, who served on the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel and describes himself as a “big supporter” of several of the Bush administration’s key education policies, said it’s too soon to “declare victory.”
“They’re claiming that these 4th graders changed so much in those few months,” he said. “There’s no way.”
Mr. Shanahan said that the recent rise in naep scores was a hopeful sign, but not especially striking, as those scores have seen minor shifts up and down over time. The big question, he said, is whether the gains will persist in future years.
Susan Aspey, Mr. Paige’s spokeswoman, said the naep gains, particularly for minorities, “are signs of substantial progress following a long period of stagnation.”
Mr. Paige also pointed to improved state test scores, such as in Delaware, where he said scores “are the best ever in this year’s tests, including reading, writing, and mathematics.”
But Delaware’s secretary of education argues that there’s a far more compelling explanation for the gains there.
“We were already about accountability for our schools and districts before No Child Left Behind,” said Valerie A. Woodruff, noting the state has seen steady improvement in test scores for several years now. “Without No Child Left Behind, we would have seen a similar pattern of growth.”
She added, “If I were in [Mr. Paige’s] shoes, I’d be more cautious about saying these things.”
Mr. Paige also noted that more of Georgia’s schools met state testing goals under the No Child Left Behind law for the most recent school year than in the previous year. Seventy-eight percent of schools made adequate yearly progress for 2003-04, compared with 64 percent the year before.
Even there, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Georgia officials have indicated that new flexibility in federal rules helped some schools make adequate prog ress in 2003-04. Also, in the 2002-03 school year, many Georgia schools got tripped up solely because not enough students took the state’s tests. This past spring, state and local officials made concerted efforts to ensure higher participation rates.
Just before Mr. Paige’s address, critics of President Bush’s education policies, including the National Education Association and the Washington-based Campaign for America’s Future, held a press conference nearby where they took aim at the the secretary’s expected comments.
“I voted against No Child Left Behind because its focus was on failure,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who was one of 41 House members to vote against the federal school law. “This is a huge intrusion that is failing our children, failing our schools.”
In his speech, Secretary Paige said he wasn’t surprised to see the law facing so much criticism.
“[T]here has always been a chattering of teeth and then a recoiling anytime there has been an attempt to change things,” he said. “So, the pushback on No Child Left Behind is not new, nor unexpected. But the debate is over. No Child Left Behind is here. It’s here to stay.”