July 15, 2008 9:16AM

“NCLB Should Be Abolished” — TX GOP & AFT!

[TNR readers, please see update below.]

What poetic justice is this? The Republican party platform for the state of Texas has this plank dedicated to the No Child Left Behind act (which I quote in its entirety):

The No Child Left Behind Act has been a massive failure and should be abolished.

This is the same state that inspired NCLB, and whose Republican party gave us the law's two greatest champions in the current president and secretary of education.

Not to be outdone, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest public school employee union in the country, had this to say about NCLB today:

“NCLB has outlived whatever usefulness it ever had. Conceived by accountants, drafted by lawyers, and distorted by ideologues, it is too badly broken to be fixed,”

A pair of bedfellows that might make even the Marquis de Sade raise an eyebrow, n'est pas?

If this justice is more than just poetic, similar calls for the abolition of NCLB will spread all over the country. The law has indeed been an abject failure whether one looks at the international or the domestic evidence on U.S. student performance. And if that were not enough it also makes a mockery of the principle of limited government on which this nation was founded -- since the Constitution affords Congress no mandate to meddle in the content, standards or testing of American schools.

(Hat Tip: Kent Fischer, Dallas Morning News, for the TX GOP platform).


TNR's Josh Patashnik argues that if both the AFT and the Texas GOP are agin' it, NCLB must be doing something right. He links to a page on the Center for American Progress website to support his view that the law has been beneficial to student achievement. There are two things wrong with CAP's view. The first is that there are nationally representative trend data from two separate international test suites (see the "international" link above) that they are apparently unaware of, and the second is that they failed to take recent upticks on the NAEP tests in the context of their pre-existing patterns (see the "domestic" link above).

Scores for U.S. students are down across grades, across subjects, and across tests based on the PIRLS and PISA international results since NCLB was passed. The drops in math and science are large enough to be statistically significant. These results were released last November and December, so CAP should have known about them when they were writing in February on the page to which you linked (I'm not saying they did know, only that they should have known). Also, in the two to four years immediately prior to the passage of NCLB, the upticks at 4th and 8th grade on the NAEP test were larger than the gains in the five or so years that followed before the most recent tests. So if NCLB had any effect at all, it was to slow a pre-existing growth rate. And there's no reason to think it did even that. NAEP scores have had such minor fluctuations for a long time. (We don't have pre-NCLB trends on PISA or PIRLS).

Finally, it is worth noting that historical improvements in 4th and 8th grade NAEP scores have never translated into higher scores at the end of high school. The NAEP Long Term Trends scores for 17-year-olds are flat for the past four decades.

Policy affecting the lives of millions of children and costing billions of dollars should be solidly grounded in the broadest base of evidence. Taken in that context, NCLB has been a tragic misdirection of resources that could have been spent far more productively in other ways.