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Critics on both the Left and the Right have charged that the No Child Left Behind Act tramples states' rights by imposing a federally mandated, one-size-fits-all accountability system on the nation's diverse states and schools.
In truth, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) gives states wide discretion to define what students must learn, how that knowledge should be tested, and what test scores constitute “proficiency”—the key elements of any educational accountability system. States also set standards for high school graduation rates, teacher qualifications, school safety and many other aspects of school performance. As a result, states are largely free to define the terms of their own educational success.
Unfortunately, many states have taken advantage of this autonomy to make their educational performance look much better than it really is. In March 2006, they submitted the latest in a series of annual reports to the U.S. Department of Education detailing their progress under NCLB. The reports covered topics ranging from student proficiency and school violence to school district performance and teacher credentials. For every measure, the pattern was the same: a significant number of states used their standard-setting flexibility to inflate the progress that their schools are making and thus minimize the number of schools facing scrutiny under the law.
Some states claimed that 80 percent to 90 percent of their students were proficient in reading and math, even though external measures such as the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) put the number at 30 percent or below. One state alleged that over 95 percent of their students graduated from high school even as independent studies put the figure closer to 65 percent. Another state determined that 99 percent of its school districts were making adequate progress, while others found that 99 percent of their teachers were highly qualified. Forty-four states reported that zero percent of their schools were persistently dangerous.
With the approval of the U.S. Department of Education, many states are reporting educational results under NCLB that defy reality and common sense. In so doing, they are undermining the effectiveness of the law.
Not all states have set lax standards. Some, like Maryland and Massachusetts, have worked hard to set a high bar for achievement and report honest information to the public. But the large variance in data reported by states that have set high standards compared to states with low standards further undermines the credibility of NCLB by creating significant and seemingly arbitrary differences in how the law impacts students and educators from state to state.
Principals and teachers in states that establish high standards under NCLB are under intense pressure to improve, while similar educators in states with low standards are told that everything is fine and they're doing a great job. Students in states that set the bar high for school performance have access to free tutoring and public school choice when their schools fall short; students in identical circumstances in other states must do without.
The result is a system of perverse incentives that rewards state education officials who misrepresent reality. Their performance looks better in the eyes of the public and they're able to avoid conflict with organized political interests. By contrast, officials who keep expectations high and report honest data have more hard choices to make and are penalized because their states look worse than others by comparison.
It is understandable, even predictable, that some state education officials would make these choices. But their actions threaten NCLB. While the most high-profile opposition to the law has come in the form of lawsuits filed and public relations campaigns waged by national teachers unions, lax state standard-setting may actually be far more harmful to the law in the long run—not by attacking it directly, but by falsely asserting that most of its goals have already been met.
Policymakers and the public won't stand behind an education system that isn't truthful. Thus, federal lawmakers have no choice but to confront the historically contentious issue of how to balance federal and state responsibility for setting education standards. Unless steps are taken to bring state standards in line with reality, NCLB's credibility—and viability—are at serious risk.