A five-year federal experiment to boost K-12 schools by standardized testing is still far from its goal: making all students "proficient" in math and reading by 2014. Now Congress will soon weigh whether to renew the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The review itself will be a new test of what the US expects from schools.
Holding public educators accountable for the quality of their work was a noble and necessary aim of the 2002 law. It was designed to produce better workers for an American economy struggling to keep its competitive advantage in a globalized workforce.
But at least 1,800 schools are failing to meet their state's new targets in math and reading. And too many states are using loopholes to lower test standards and make more schools appear to be succeeding – when they clearly aren't, based on the results of separate exams known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The definition of "proficiency" is being dumbed down.
And such weakening of standards helps many states avoid remedies set out by the law to give students an opportunity for tutoring and a choice in transferring to better schools. This neglect of children's basic needs should not go unnoticed.
Many problems have cropped up in implementing the NCLB law, leading to many studies on how to fix them. As House and Senate committees begin hearings in coming weeks to reauthorize the law, they'll need to carefully weigh these diverse recommendations through the same bipartisan lens that created the law, while strengthening its mandates.
President Bush, who sees this act as his signature domestic initiative, proposed his own fixes last month. His ideas lack one of the most needed changes – extending the law to ensure high school seniors meet minimum standards. But his call for lifting state bans on the number of charter schools and for giving federal vouchers to students in underperforming schools shows the kind of solutions that may be necessary.
Mr. Bush also wants the law to require proficiency in science, make it easier for administrators to remove bad teachers, and provide tutoring and the school-transfer option only to those categories of students that are failing.
Other worthwhile ideas have come from a bipartisan panel sponsored by the Aspen Institute. Most of its proposals keep the right emphasis on requiring steady progress in results. Next week, a coalition between the US Chamber of Commerce and the Center for American Progress will offer changes to the law while issuing a "report card" on how each state is implementing it.
Congress needs to renew the law this year to ensure maximum bipartisanship goes into reshaping it before campaigning for the 2008 elections begins in earnest. And with the 2014 deadline for full "proficiency" unlikely to be met, it must rethink this federal deadline. Bush wants to impose sanctions on failing schools in 2020.
The nation remains uneasy about this strong federal hand in local education but also worried about how undereducated workers are affecting its economic future. Whether to impose testing is no longer the issue, but rather how such tests are done, and whether these measurements are used to improve education for all children.