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NCLB Outrages

Why We'll Mend It, Not End It

Ohanian comment: Ravitch is correct when she observes that democrats such as Clinton have been into standards and testing up to their eyeballs. Clinton wanted a national test.

The protests against the No Child Left Behind legislation are growing. Anti-testing activists opposed it from the get-go, but now conservative states like Utah are complaining that the federal government should not trample on states' rights, and liberal states like Connecticut insist they will not test children every year from grades three through eight. And no surprise, the National Education Association has sued to overturn what it calls an unfunded federal mandate.

The critics of NCLB think that it was modeled on education reforms in Texas and that it sprang full-blown from the brow of President Bush. They think they can undermine NCLB if only they can expose shortcomings in Texas's schools. But NCLB is not going away because it is the product of many years of bipartisan demands for changes in the role of the federal government, especially in meeting its responsibilities to poor children.

The word "education" does not appear in the Constitution, and for many years the federal role in education was negligible. This changed forever in 1965, when Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, one of President Johnson's signature issues. Its main feature, Title I, sent federal dollars to school districts across the nation to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children. Fearful that districts would squander the money, Sen. Robert Kennedy inserted into the law a provision requiring districts to send test-score data to Washington to show that the new federal subsidy was making a difference for poor children. However, lacking any recognizable test of student performance, many districts ignored the requirement, and others produced mounds of non-comparable test scores. Over time, the success of the Title I legislation was measured by how much money it distributed, but its results were unknown.

In 1983, a federal report called "A Nation at Risk" warned that student achievement was mediocre at best and called for higher standards, better pay, and a stronger curriculum. In the flurry of activity that followed that report, a bipartisan group of reform-minded Southern governors -- including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Jim Hunt of North Carolina, and Richard Riley of South Carolina -- insisted on higher education standards and agreed to a trial of the federally funded test called the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in their states.

In 1988, recognizing the growing demand for higher standards and better tests, Congress created the National Assessment Governing Board to oversee the NAEP program of testing. In the years since, NAEP has become the gold standard in the testing industry. The next year, President George H.W. Bush invited the nation's governors to join him in a national summit to discuss ways to improve education. This summit produced six national education goals, which were negotiated largely between the Bush administration and Gov. Clinton of Arkansas on behalf of the National Governors Association.

To follow through on the new national goals (for the year 2000), the Bush administration launched its program, called America 2000, which called for voluntary national standards and a national test. Although the administration funded professional groups to set academic standards, the Democratic-controlled Congress never authorized any part of America 2000.

When Bill Clinton campaigned for president, he promised to create a system of national standards and tests. When he was elected president, his education program was known as Goals 2000, and like its predecessor, it recognized the need to press for higher student achievement. Passed by Congress in 1994, Goals 2000 provided funds for every state to write academic standards and develop tests. The same Democratic-controlled Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which called on states to expect poor children to meet state standards. In his 1997 State of the Union address, President Clinton proposed the establishment of voluntary national tests in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math. The Department of Education spent $50 million to develop these tests, but the GOP-controlled Congress never authorized them.

In the 2000 campaign, both George Bush and Al Gore endorsed a federal role in promoting higher education standards and greater accountability. Both camps said that federal funds should be leveraged to promote higher academic achievement and to reduce the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Thus, when President Bush proposed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as his first major piece of legislation, he had many years of bipartisan agreement to build on. To no one's surprise, the new law passed by overwhelming majorities: 381-41 in the House, and 87-10 in the Senate. Some Republicans grumbled about the expansion of the federal role in education, and some Democrats complained about the emphasis on testing, but their numbers were few.

NCLB will not come up for renewal until 2007. Until then, there will be griping by those who don't like the new federal role in education and those who don't want to see children tested every year. But it seems safe to predict that the next renewal will strengthen the law rather than weaken it. After all, annual testing is hardly a new idea in American education. Not just reading, math and science, but history too is likely to become part of the NCLB mandate for testing.

What is valuable about the law is its insistence that districts measure their progress in helping the children who can't meet state standards. Raising achievement across the board will be hard -- but it is not mission impossible.

Ms. Ravitch is a historian of education at NYU and a member of the Koret Task Force on Education at the Hoover Institution.

— Diane Ravitch
Wall Street Journal


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