Editorial Board

Let States Reform Education, Don’t Let Them Set a Low Bar: View

In issuing waivers to states under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind), releasing them from a 2014 deadline for achieving 100 percent proficiency on standardized reading and math exams, President Barack Obama rightly chastised Congress for its failure to bring the law’s decade-old requirements up to date.

Unfortunately, neither the president nor Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has given Congress strong guidance on how to proceed.

In fending off the immediate crisis -- Duncan says more than 80 percent of schools would fail to achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014 -- the administration risks allowing states off the hook on accountability.

The underlying problem is summed up neatly in the Education Department’s own explanation of the waivers: “In many states, parents are being told that their children are proficient based on a low bar. Many of them are being lied to because their children aren’t really being prepared for college and careers. Under ESEA flexibility, States will set standards based on expectations for success in college and careers.” In other words, the very states that have watered down their standards are being given far greater freedom to set new bars.

Yet it’s vital that we have some sort of barometer of how students and schools are faring. The standardized tests used in the last decade are hardly perfect, but they do provide a relatively accurate picture of the state of American education. (Note: It’s not a pretty one.)

There is nothing wrong with the idea of states being laboratories of innovation, so long as we ensure that they fully disclose scores from meaningful tests, set rigorous standards and take sensible steps to intervene in failing situations. It is also understandable that local and state officials chafed under the steps laid out for reform if schools failed to meet their Adequate Yearly Progress requirements, which were relatively strict and didn’t prove to be one-size-fits-all.

It’s promising that 45 states and the District of Columbia have demonstrated their interest in rigorous testing standards by signing on to the Common Core State Standards initiative, an effort pushed largely by governors to establish sensible, exacting performance benchmarks, to be in place by 2014. But it should be clear by now that we also need a universal benchmark. If all states won’t adopt one voluntarily, the federal government may have to step in.

Good ideas for education reform are floating around the capital. We support the administration’s emphasis on incentives -- such as the competitive grants given out by its Race to the Top program -- rather than an emphasis on punishment for failure.

A group of Republican senators led by Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former education secretary, are introducing legislation that would retain strict standards for annual assessments and, at the same time, streamline federal financing, give states power over teacher licensing, eliminate the Adequate Yearly Progress system and require that states disaggregate test data -- that is, not simply release the results from entire student populations but break down scores by racial, economic and other subgroups. The bipartisan push toward greater emphasis on teacher evaluation is also laudable, so long as it doesn’t dilute the focus on student performance.

Lawmakers and educators must also cope with several troubling trends NCLB has helped identify: Why do test results often vary widely within individual schools? Why do many minority students fare poorly even at high-achieving suburban schools? Why have relatively few parents taken their children out of failing schools when provided with an alternative? Why, as a recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out, do 30 percent to 50 percent of America’s best students fail to maintain their elite performance over time?

Let’s hope Congress gives those issues serious thought as it works to reauthorize NCLB, which, despite its flaws, was the impetus for a decade of innovative reforms for the nation’s 100,000 public schools.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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