NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 21, 2006

Out of respect for federalism and mistrust of Washington, much of the GOP has expected individual states to set their own academic standards and devise their own tests and accountability systems.  That was the approach of the No Child Left Behind Act -- which moved as boldly as it could while still achieving bipartisan support.  It sounds good, but it is working badly, say William J. Bennett, education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, and Rod Paige, education secretary under President George W. Bush.

A new Fordham Foundation report shows that most states have deployed mediocre standards, and there's increasing evidence that some are playing games with their tests and accountability systems.

Take Tennessee, for example:

  • The state reports to its residents that a whopping 87 percent of its fourth-graders are "proficient" in reading.
  • Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that the number is more like 27 percent.

Or consider Oklahoma:

  • In one year the number of schools on its "needs improvement" list dropped by 85 percent.
  • This happened not because they improved or their students learned more, but because a bureaucrat in the state education department changed the way Oklahoma calculates "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law.

We need to find better and more efficient ways to produce an educated population and close the achievement gaps in our education system.  Washington should set sound national academic standards and administer a high-quality national test.  Publicize everybody's results, right down to the school level.  Then Washington should butt out,

States that prefer to cling to their own standards and tests -- and endure the rules and meddling of federal bureaucrats -- would be free to do so.  Some surely would.  But many would welcome a new compact with the Education Department, say Bennett and Paige.

Source: William J. Bennett and Rod Paige, "Why We Need a National School Test," Washington Post, September 21, 2006; and Chester E. Finn, Jr., Michael J. Petrilli and Liam Julian, "The State of State Standards 2006," Fordham Foundation, August 29, 2006.

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