DUMBING EDUCATION DOWN

October 8, 2007

President Bush's signature education reform -- the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) -- has the central flaw of mandating that every American schoolchild must become "proficient" in reading and math while not defining what "proficiency" is, says Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

A new analysis of where 26 states have set their bars, conducted by Northwest Evaluation Associates (NWEA) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, shows dizzying state-to-state variation in the math and reading skills that primary and middle-school youngsters are expected to acquire, with "passing" scores varying from the sixth to the 77th percentile on NWEA's rock-solid scale, according to Finn Jr.

Unfortunately, there's more.  The study also reveals that:

  • Over the past few years, intentionally or not, more states' their tests have become easier, rather than harder, to pass; the evidence is student gains appearing on state test results that are not borne out by independent measures.
  • Few states peg their expectations consistently across the grades; most set up thousands of children for unexpected trouble in middle school by aiming low in primary school.
  • States typically have far higher standards for math than for reading.

If "proficiency" has no stable or comparable meaning, NCLB's entire strategy for intervening in low-performing schools and districts rests on quicksand.  And millions of parents are getting garbled and misleading information as to how their own children, and their children's schools and school systems, are actually doing, says Finn Jr..

Tinkering with NCLB, as today's bills and plans would do, may ease some of the current law's other problems.  But until lawmakers muster the intestinal fortitude to go after its central illusions, America's needed education makeover is not going to occur, says Finn Jr.

Source: Chester E. Finn Jr., "Dumbing Education Down," Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2007.

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