NCLB: What a Mess

Only two days after a fatally flawed but positive report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) inspired No Child Left Behind (NCLB) fans to declare NCLB a success, two new analyses have come out showing that far from being a triumph, the law has mainly produced just two things: confusion and deception.

The first report comes from the Gannett News Service (GNS), which compared results on state tests to scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading exams. What GNS found is that in many states far more students reach “proficiency” on state reading and math tests – the only ones that “count” for NCLB – than on NAEP. This strongly suggests that states are setting low proficiency bars, probably in order to stay out of trouble under the law.

The second analysis comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). IES’s report makes similar comparisons to GNS, but with more statistical rigor. Essentially, it equates scores on state tests in schools that administered NAEP with those schools’ NAEP results. (NAEP is based on representative sampling of schools and students rather than giving tests to every student in every school). What the analysis reveals is that most states’ “proficient” levels are equivalent to NAEP’s “basic” designation. That is, except in 4th-grade reading, where most state proficiency levels are actually below NAEP’s basic level.

The results of these studies, taken in conjunction with the cavernous data holes and inconsistencies in CEP’s report, make clear that no reasonable conclusions about NCLB’s effectiveness can be drawn using state test scores. Unfortunately, no proof of the law’s effectiveness can be drawn from NAEP, either. As the CEP folks noted in their report, so many reforms have been implemented simultaneously with NCLB that no one could ever tease out which initiative is responsible for which changes in achievement. NAEP is, though, a much more consistent measure than state tests. Unfortunately for NCLB fans, its results have not been too encouraging.

Perhaps one slightly heartening outcome from today’s news is that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who ordinarily seems to declare almost any education news proof that NCLB is working, tempered her rhetoric a bit.

This report offers sobering news that serious work remains to ensure that our schools are teaching students to the highest possible standards. States have made significant strides under No Child Left Behind to close our nation’s achievement gap, as evidenced by the Center on Education Policy study released earlier this week. But today’s report finds that many states’ assessment standards do not measure up to the rigorous standards of The Nation’s Report Card.

Unfortunately, the slight uptick in NCLB sanity coming from Spellings was cancelled out by at least one federal standards advocate, who took advantage of the results to plug his favorite reform. According to the New York Times, after Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation acknowledged that “parents and communities in too many states are being told not to worry, all is well, when their students are far behind,” he went on to conclude that “we don’t need a national curriculum, but we certainly should have national standards for reading and math.”

Of course! We know that state and local politicians are self-serving jerks who will set low standards to keep themselves out of hot water even if it hurts kids, but federal politicians are as pure as the driven snow, and were they able to set standards they’d set them as high as possible, let the political chips fall where they may.

Right.

It’s just this kind of baseless assumption about Washington goodness that got us into this filthy NCLB mess to begin with.