Local Success, Federal Failure
How do your local public schools measure up? It depends on whom you ask
Since moving from Massachusetts to California, David Gerhard and his wife have made an effort to stay in touch with friends back East. They talk about their homes, their jobs, and another subject: fifth grade. Does your kid have to memorize times tables? Does he have to memorize all the states? What about long division? "We keep a monitor on it," Gerhard says. "Not hard data but to get a feel." Their constant concern: Will their children leave California schools as well educated as their kids' friends in Massachusetts?
The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to help families like Gerhard's answer that question with a definitive "Yes." The federal law requires all states to draft standards-minimum expectations for each grade level-and to annually assess how well those standards are being met. But critics of the law argue that all the tests that have followed have not clarified matters at all. Every state administers a different test tied to different standards, and few of the state standards seem to match national ideas about what kids should know.
One size. So why not teach all kids the same things? Or try to make standards uniform? That's what Gerhard and, more important, a growing number of policymakers want to know. With hearings on No Child Left Behind starting in March, two top Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would require the federal government to define the standards against which all states would be measured. Groups from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute to the National Education Association, a teachers union, support the idea.
"Isn't it crazy that your child is learning different material and being held to a different standard than, say, your sister's children in another state?" asks Mike Petrilli, Fordham's vice president.
An existing test that should set this all straight-the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the so-called nation's report card-only muddles matters more. NAEP, created in 1964 to provide a snapshot of national academic performance, tests just a sample of students on a sample of questions; as a result, it cannot grade individual students or individual schools.
It can, however, cast doubt on other grades, often contradicting states' rosy reports. In 2003, states like Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi reported that over 80 percent of their fourth graders were "proficient" or better in reading, yet fewer than 30 percent of their students scored proficient on the NAEP reading test. Thirty-two other states posted gaps of more than 30 percentage points. The latest data-presented last week-are just as dismal. One study, based on 2005 high school transcripts, showed impressive gains in state-reported grade-point averages and course loads. Another, based on 12th-grade NAEP scores in the same year, showed depressing stagnancy in actual test performance; less than one quarter of high school seniors scored proficient in math, and only 35 percent scored proficient in reading-down from 40 percent in 1992.
Critics say No Child Left Behind is the source of the problem. To avoid labeling hundreds of schools "failing," they say states have simply lowered the definition of proficient, or the "cut score," to ensure more schools make the grade. Indeed, a 2004 Missouri law mandated lower cut scores, and Arizona has lowered some of its scores, too.