It has been described as "the race to the bottom." Many NCLB critics contend that faced with mounting pressure to meet federal performance targets, some states have watered down their standards. The evidence is mostly anecdotal, but the debate flares up every year when state and national test results show contrasting views of progress. In one well-publicized case, Mississippi standardized tests showed 80 percent of its fourth graders scoring proficient or better in reading, but fewer than 30 percent of its students were proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a state or two that have raised their standards" since No Child Left Behind went into effect, says Michael Cohen, a Clinton administration education adviser. "Standards are literally all over the map."
A recent poll from the Educational Testing Service shows that 6 in 10 Americans say a single set of national standards should replace the mishmash of NCLB state standards. But this seemingly easy fix has its pitfalls. For example, agreeing on a science or history curriculum would be tough. "The culture wars would explode," says Amy Wilkins, a vice president at the Washington-based Education Trust.
Spellings supports giving states financial incentives to raise standards, but she doesn't think the federal government should dictate what she calls "a one size fits all" curriculum. "For us to take x number of years to have a federal debate about intelligent design just seems like a real bad idea to me," she says.
But simply because the feds aren't poised to create national standards doesn't mean that states can't agree to do it themselves, says Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. "Let states dream up uniform standards that they want to use," he says. And some states are.
Thirty states, including Minnesota, Texas, and New Jersey, have participated in a program run by Achieve, a nonpartisan education think tank, to raise their high school standards to match the needs of colleges and employers. Nine states, from Arkansas to Rhode Island, have created a common Algebra II test. Still, some education activists say the stringent requirements of NCLB may be keeping more states from cooperating. Says Wilkins, "NCLB is not encouraging states to raise their standards."