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.
Of course, grades are less important than the content they measure. But critics say the content is also too weak. A 2006 Fordham report grading the quality of the state standards awarded only three states A's; 26 got D's or F's. A major problem highlighted by Fordham: The "experts" drafted to write the standards were not highly educated in their disciplines.
Qualified standards writers can be hard to find-especially for a state on a tight deadline and trim budget. North Dakota had just 10 permanent staffers on standards and testing; on assessments, Montana's education agency had one. "She's the whole department," says Linda McCulloch, the state superintendent.
By contrast, the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, regularly revises standards with the help of dozens of experts. "As a [state] commissioner, you're really pretty much restricted to off-the-shelf tests," says Charles Smith, the former Tennessee education commissioner and now NAGB's executive director. There are not many states ... [that] could attract the kind of experts that we're able to attract." If the federal government were in charge, reformers say, states could design better tests and create more rigorous standards, with no additional funding.
This is not the first time national standards have been proposed. President Bill Clinton tried twice-first to draft standards and later to introduce a voluntary national test-but the ideas failed as opponents warned the test would force schools to teach a liberal national agenda condoning homosexuality and encouraging feminism and as states and municipalities resisted the loss of local control.
The double failure made a deep impression on Michael Cohen, a Clinton adviser. "What is conventionally thought of as national standards-that is, the federal government leads, it picks somebody to write them, and it puts it out there for states to use-I'm increasingly unconvinced that that's the way to get there," he says.
Bottom up. Cohen now believes the states must take the initiative. He is president of Achieve, a nonprofit that helps states improve their standards through a process far more intensive than simply accepting a list from the government. Instead, the states hold summits and solicit outside assistance; the proposed standards are then reviewed by an independent panel. Although each state conducts its own review, they tend to reach similar goals. "The real world is the same wherever you are," Cohen says. "So the states, by virtue of trying to create real-world anchors, are discovering their standards ought to be quite similar to each other."
Letting states write their own plans could produce even better results. Cheri Pierson Yecke, Florida's chancellor of K-12 schools, points to a new reading program that some California schools tested in the 1990s. The resulting lower test scores alarmed policymakers, and the program was scrapped. Because the program wasn't a national one, only some students had to suffer its poor results. "That's the beauty of local control," Yecke explains. "[It] gives us 50 different laboratories, so we'll know what we need to discard and what we need to embrace."
National standards would not necessarily disrupt those laboratories. Neither plan before Congress-one from Sen. Christopher Dodd and the other from Sen. Edward Kennedy-would force the states to adopt the standards the federal government would be required to write. But, if history is any guide, backlashes could result from whatever those standards turn out to be.
This story appears in the March 5, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.