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Fixing NCLB: The Right Federal Role With Improved Accountability

There has been a great deal of heated debate about how to fix our nation's flawed accountability system and the law that created it, No Child Left Behind.  On the one side are the administration and a coalition of civil rights groups saying, in effect, that the most important feature of No Child Left Behind is the requirement for annual testing of all the students in every school, with the scores of poor and minority students broken out, coupled with some connection between those scores and real consequences for teachers if the students fail to make real progress.  On the other side are the Republicans—and some Democrats—in Congress, who are fed up with what they now believe to be a massive intrusion of the federal government into a realm that used to be left to the states, with little to show for it.  The Republicans are inclined to trust the states to do the right thing, having seen the federal government mess up badly, and the Democrats are much less sure that is a good idea, having vivid memories of what happened when they did trust the states.

In my view, this is not the best way to think about the issues. 

The Congress was not wrong to be upset when it discovered that a great deal of money it had spent over the years had failed to produce the outcomes it expected.  The country should be making sure that the money it spends on education is producing results.  It has an even greater interest in dramatically improving the performance of minority and poor children, because those children are going to be the majority of the nation's workers very shortly, and so the country's broader future depends on these students being far better educated than they are now.  Congress cannot and should not back down on its responsibility to address these challenges.

But it is also true that the Constitution reserved the lead responsibility for making education policy to the states, not the federal government.  I think that was a good decision.  The record of the federal government as national school board in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has not been outstanding.

So this is what I would do.  Let the Congress decide what level of student performance relative to the performance of the top-performing nations is acceptable for the United States.  For me, the only acceptable target for the United States is to be among the top ten performers in the world.  One would hope that the Congress would not want to settle for American performance that is not among the top ten.

The Congress should then stipulate in law that all states will participate in the OECD-PISA sample assessments, allowing states to compare their performance to the top nations, provinces and states in the world (right now, we are not even among the top 20).  Further, let the law stipulate that any state with average student performance equal to that of the top ten nations or even within ten percentage points of the average performance of the top ten could organize and manage its education system in any way it wished, provided that students in the classes protected by the ESEA were no further behind the average than low-income students are in the OECD averages for the top-performers.  That would include permitting each state to have its own standards, devising its own accountability system, and creating its own testing regime.

But, if a state were to fall below that standard, the federal government would require that the state, as a condition of receiving any federal school aid, adopt standards, assessments and accountability regimes of the kind used by the states with the best performance, until such time as the state rose back up into the ranks of the top performers and once again earned the right to be a free agent in such matters.  The federal government would, in any case, reserve the right to intervene in education policy in cases involving the infringement of civil rights.

The law should further specify that the states would be required to test every student with a state-wide test at least once in elementary school, middle school and, in high school, and would have to release the scores to the public for the average performance of the tested population as a whole and for each specified subgroup of disadvantaged students. 

In the event that this proposal does win the favor of the Congress and the Congress insists, once again in specifying a national accountability regime to be used by all states, along with a particular testing regime, then I would offer the following testing regime as a great improvement, in my mind, over the one now specified in the law.  This regime, and the accountability system of which it would be a part, is laid out in more detail, with a more ample explanation of how it would work, here.

I would have the states administer a 1st grade diagnostic test to all incoming first graders, not for purposes of accountability, but to make sure that every first grade teacher had a very clear idea of the reading abilities, vocabulary and math skills of every entering first grader, which I believe to be vital knowledge if our teachers are going to have a fighting chance to bring all of our students to basic literacy in mathematics and English by the end of the fourth grade.

The state would administer three high-stakes tests over the course of a students career in school, one at the end of the 4th grade, one at the end of the 8th grade and another in high school, which would first be administered in the 10th grade, but which could be taken as often thereafter as necessary for the student to get a passing grade.  That grade would be set at the level indicating a high probability that the student would succeed in the first year of a four year or two year college.  Students meeting this standard would need no remediation on their way to college or for entry into the workforce.  These would be very high quality tests.  They would be given in every subject in the core curriculum, not just in mathematics and English literacy.  And they would be given to all students.  It is the students, not the teachers, who would be held accountable for performance on the tests.  This is the system used by almost all of the countries with the highest student performance, not one of which administers grade by grade tests, as called for in No Child Left Behind.  I would report these scores for schools as a whole and for each protected group within the school.

In grades 2 and 6, I would require the states to administer computer-scored tests to a sample of students in each school, enlarging that sample as much as necessary for the protected classes of students to make sure that their performance was accurately reported.  Because these tests would be administered only to a sample of students, rather than the whole student body, these tests would be much cheaper to administer than the more expensive tests administered three times in a student's career. 

By reducing the number of years in which we tested, we would greatly reduce testing time and reduce the amount of money states were required to spend on cheap tests that test very little of what students need to know to be successful in the modern workplace.  By testing more subjects, we would avoid narrowing the curriculum.  By putting the stakes on the students and not the teachers—which is what the top-performing countries do—we would eliminate the incentive for teachers to cheat, greatly reduce the pressure to teach to the test, give teachers a test that they think measures things they want to teach rather than the rote skills measured by most cheap tests, and thereby keep in teaching the many good teachers who are now leaving in droves.  By combining census testing with sampling in the off years, we would have preserved the best feature of No Child Left Behind: regular reporting, school by school, of the performance of children in protected classes.  Not least important, we would drop the incentive now in the law for our best teachers to avoid teaching poor and minority students for fear of getting low ratings on the misused value-added measures now used to identify—actually misidentify—bad teachers.

If we could do that, it would be a great advance from where we are today.  But I would prefer that the states use the kind of testing regime I just described, not because they were made to do so by the federal government, but simply because it makes sense.




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