Congress begins debate this week on renewal of a 2001 education law that has led many more children to read and do math at their grade level. That gold-star success of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) argues for keeping the law's mandate for state testing largely intact. The question before Congress: What kind of testing?
A draft bill in the House contains proposed changes that reflect the complaints of many teachers and parents that the law's narrow testing only on math and reading has pushed schools to shortchange the curriculum in other areas, such as history and the arts.
Other critics of the law cite the mechanical nature of testing often used – machine-scored, multiple-choice questions during long exams – as unsuitable for many students. NCLB is also seen as too limiting to inspire the kind of high-quality thinking needed for 21st-century jobs or for lifelong learning.
And in a perverse example of the law of unintended consequences, many schools – eager to retain high-scoring students and show yearly progress as required – are all too willing to see a rise in dropout rates among low-performing students.
As a result, the House bill's proposed changes would broaden the types of assessments to include science projects, writing samples, and collections of student work. While some states have tried these added criteria, it's still unclear whether they provide a clear picture of progress.
The big problem with this more complex system of assessment is that parents and taxpayers would find it far more difficult to see a school's success or failure as a teaching institution.
And some schools might try to hide their failures in reading and math by pointing to successes in other areas. Many small, mainly rural schools also could not afford the costly requirements.
The simple wisdom of the NCLB law is its recognition that reading and math are fundamental to learning other subjects, and that schools need to be independently judged. Before this law, US public schools were graduating many students who could barely read a sentence or multiply numbers. Since then, test scores in these subjects have risen. More than 70 percent of schools showed progress. And, most important, large gaps between white and minority students have narrowed.
What's more, the law provides an escape route for students stuck in bad schools that won't reform – free tutoring and the right to transfer to a better school, even a private one. As these provisions are only now kicking in, teacher unions and many schools are arguing to water down the law or create loopholes. Congress should resist this.
Being held accountable for a child's education isn't easy.
Many nonschool factors – such as parental income and education level – must be overcome. Teachers need higher pay, even merit pay. The nation needs a standard to measure dropout rates so that problem can be addressed. And the law's goal of achieving 100 percent success by 2014 needs a more realistic target.
So far, NCLB's successes outweigh its flaws. Congress should stick to the law's purpose of ensuring basic education for as many children as possible, with as much transparency as possible.