NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

States Lower Testing Standards

May 22, 2003

Educators across the nation are seeking ways to avoid the penalties that the federal No Child Left Behind law imposes on schools whose students fare poorly on standardized tests. Since President Bush signed the law in January 2002, all 50 states have presented plans for compliance. But some experts say there is only a veneer of acquiescence.

  • Texas voted to reduce the number of questions that students must answer correctly to pass the third-grade reading exam, from 24 out of 36, to 20.
  • Michigan officials lowered the percentage of students who must pass statewide tests to certify a school as making adequate progress; for example, the percentage of high school students that must pass English tests has been reduced from 75 to 42 percent, thus reducing the number of schools so labeled to 216.
  • Colorado employed another tactic that will result in fewer schools being labeled as needing improvement; it overhauled the grading system used on its tests, lumping students previously characterized on the basis of test scores as "partially proficient" with those called "proficient."

"Some states are lowering the passing scores, they're redefining schools in need of improvement and they're deferring the hard task of achievement-boosting into the distant future," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education who supports the law's goal of raising standards. "That's a really cynical approach."

Under the law, states that fail to comply risk losing federal education money. Schools deemed failing several years in a row must offer tutoring to low-achieving students and, eventually, can be forced into complete reorganization. But the law leaves it up to the states to establish their own standards of success.

Source: Sam Dillon, "States Are Relaxing Standards on Tests to Avoid Sanctions," New York Times, May 22, 2003.


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