The Case for National Standards, Accountability, and Fiscal Equity
Ohanian Comment: And now we get the rest of the story. Standardistos cross party lines but all sit at the feet of the Business Roundtable. Yesterday Diane Ravitch offered a call for a national curriculum in the New York Times. Today it's the progressives making the same pitch: One nation under one test, with liberty and justice. . . oops! that was another era.
by Cindy Brown and Elena Rocha
The short version
In a relatively short time, the standards-based framework for elementary and secondary education systems has been fully adopted in the United States. In 1983, the report A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform challenged the country to significantly raise its educational expectations for all students. More formal proposals for adoption of standards came in 1989 with support from then-President George H. W. Bush and the nation’s governors. A few years later, in 1994, Congress passed legislation (Goals 2000 legislation and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) establishing the standards-based framework as the condition for receipt of federal funds and requiring states to adopt curriculum standards and accountability systems. States, however, implemented the basic principles of these laws unevenly.
In 2001, the standards movement advanced with passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. NCLB built upon and made significant changes to the 1994 laws, placing greater emphasis on accountability for student learning and specifying the authorization of federal dollars through fiscal year 2007. Today, all states have developed both curriculum and student performance standards and hold their districts and schools accountable for meeting yearly student achievement goals that grow tougher each year.
But what can be considered a step forward in many respects, is also an impediment—a false sense of student performance. With more than 50 different sets of standards, there is no national measure/yardstick/standard/benchmark for academic achievement at each of the grade levels. NCLB requires that states hold districts and schools accountable for getting all their students to “proficient” achievement levels, but allows them to adopt their own definitions of “proficiency.” With the pressure to increase student performance, as illustrated below, there has been counter pressure for states to game the system by lowering both standards and proficiency definitions. Such action can lead, perversely, to weakening curriculum and lowering, not raising expectations. Only national curriculum standards and national definitions and measures of student performance at proficiency levels can prevent this behavior.
National cries for increased expectations and evidence of higher student achievement are more than 30 years old. But the decentralized system of schooling continues mostly unchanged. Students continue to move through the nation’s schools gaining widely varying levels—mostly low—of knowledge, skills and preparedness. Evidence of this abounds.
Full Text [Charts are missing. Go to the PDF link at American Prospect.]
Standards-Based Framework in a Decentralized System
In a relatively short time, the standards-based framework for elementary and secondary
education systems has been fully adopted in the United States. In 1983, the report A
Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform challenged the country to
significantly raise its educational expectations for all students. More formal proposals for
adoption of standards came in 1989 with support from then-President George H. W. Bush
and the nation’s governors. A few years later, in 1994, Congress passed legislation
(Goals 2000 legislation and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act) establishing the standards-based framework as the condition for receipt of
federal funds and requiring states to adopt curriculum standards and accountability
systems. States, however, implemented the basic principles of these laws unevenly.
In 2001, the standards movement advanced with passage of the No Child Left Behind
(NCLB) Act. NCLB built upon and made significant changes to the 1994 laws, placing
greater emphasis on accountability for student learning and specifying the authorization
of federal dollars through fiscal year 2007. Today, all states have developed both
curriculum and student performance standards and hold their districts and schools
accountable for meeting yearly student achievement goals that grow tougher each year.
But what can be considered a step forward in many respects, is also an impediment—a
false sense of student performance. With more than 50 different sets of standards, there
is no national measure/yardstick/standard/benchmark for academic achievement at each
of the grade levels. NCLB requires that states hold districts and schools accountable for
getting all their students to “proficient” achievement levels, but allows them to adopt
their own definitions of “proficiency.” With the pressure to increase student
performance, as illustrated below, there has been counter pressure for states to game the
system by lowering both standards and proficiency definitions. Such action can lead,
perversely, to weakening curriculum and lowering, not raising expectations. Only
national curriculum standards and national definitions and measures of student
performance at proficiency levels can prevent this behavior.
National cries for increased expectations and evidence of higher student achievement are
more than 30 years old. But the decentralized system of schooling continues mostly
unchanged. Students continue to move through the nation’s schools gaining widely
varying levels—mostly low—of knowledge, skills and preparedness. Evidence of this
Academic Achievement on National Measures
Students’ academic achievement has been improving slowly since 1992 on the national
sample of reading and math achievement, the National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP). Newly released NAEP results for 2005, when compared with 2003
results, show small progress in 4th grade reading and math, minimal progress in 8th grade
math and regress in 8th grade reading. Given the push for reform in the late 1990s as well
as NCLB requirements and new focused programs like Reading First, observers hoped
for more. (See Chart 1 with scale scores for the major subgroups).
Even more disturbing is the disparity in scores across the states. A state-by-state
comparison of NAEP 2005 average scale scores for 4th grade reading reveals that more
than half of the states in the nation scored more than 10 points—about one grade level—
below the highest scoring state of Massachusetts. Eighth (8th) grade math results reveal a
There is a small silver lining to the story presented by NAEP data; disaggregating data
illustrates the gradual closing of the achievement gap. Scores in 2005 for all racial/ethnic
groups as well as low-income children are the highest ever recorded for the Main NAEP
test.1 While the average scale scores among whites are still higher than African-
Americans and Latinos (see Chart 1), the academic gains made within these minority
populations are often greater than that of their white peers. (See Chart 2).
Unfortunately, the difference in scores between African-Americans and Latinos and their
white peers too often equate to more than two grade levels difference in academic
achievement. Nonetheless, the incremental closing of the achievement gap is positive. A
look at national proficiency rates, another NAEP reporting measure, also illustrates the
academic gains among African-American and Latino populations. (See Chart 3).
While far from the national goal of proficiency, another piece of good news is the
significant drop in the proportion of minority and low-income students performing below
the basic level since 1992. (See Chart 4).
NAEP–State Reporting Differences about Student Achievement
As disappointing as the minimal, overall progress on NAEP is, the more troubling story is
the contrasting progress reported by most states. This progress is just not verified by
NAEP. As the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has pointed out, “Almost twenty states
have reported gains from 2003 to 2005 in the percentage of eighth-graders rated
“proficient” (or the equivalent) in reading on their own state tests. Among those states,
however, only three show any progress at even the “basic” level on the latest National
Assessment of Educational Progress…. None of these states made any progress in eighth
grade reading at NAEP's “proficient” level.”2 (See Chart 5 which highlights the largest
differences in proficiency results, for states with data available, when comparing 2005
state and NAEP data). Some states reporting gains from 2003 to 2005 on their own tests
had declining rates of proficiency on NAEP. (See Chart 6.)
As noted above, the differences in scores, which can be drastic, relate to how high states
set their standards. While some states have high expectations of their students and
therefore high standards for their performance, others choose not to aim as high. A state
with high content standards may have student performance scores that appear low (or
even high if student proficiency cut scores are set low), whereas a state with lower
standards can report higher levels of academic achievement among their students.
Consequently, reporting of state assessment results are misleading. More importantly,
they provide the public with a false sense of the condition of education at the local, state
and national levels. Today, state testing results really tell the public little about how
schools are performing and progressing. But the establishment and implementation of
national standards and the testing and reporting of student achievement in two or three
core subjects like reading, math, and science would provide the public with a much more
accurate picture of how United States’ students are progressing nationally and state-bystate.
Non-existent Accountability Measures for States
One of the glaring omissions of NCLB is its silence on state accountability for
improvement in student achievement for all students and in closing achievement gaps
among student subgroups within the state. For over a decade state legislatures have been
increasing state responsibilities for local public education, while simultaneously, in most
states, cutting state education agency budgets. The federal government has also been
increasing state responsibilities during this period, but usually with accompanying,
though modest, financial increases for state activities. However, the federal requirements
for states have been procedural—submission of state plans, development of student
assessment systems, publication of state report cards with disaggregated data about
student achievement at the school and district level, development of systems to judge
teacher quality, and traditional compliance monitoring, to name a few.3 These
requirements are extremely important, but there is nothing in NCLB or its predecessors
that require any degree of state accountability for success in their efforts to improve
Fiscal Inequities Incompatible with National Standards
It makes no sense to expect schools, districts, and states to reach national student
achievement goals and to hold them accountable for doing so if their financial resources
and quality of teachers are unequal. Currently, in the United States, such inequities far
surpass those found in other industrialized countries—countries that have national
curriculum standards. If we are to adopt and raise national standards for education, the
nation must as well increase its commitment to equality through increased and equitable
financial investments that guarantee “level playing fields” of high quality across the
While disagreement rages among researchers, advocates, and their lawyers about what
constitutes sufficient or adequate funding levels “to deploy educational strategies that are
successful in educating students to high performance standards,”4 there are clear
inequities that few would disagree need attention. There are three basic types of
inequitable funding, all of which shortchange low-income and minority students:
• interstate, i.e. across the nation
• intrastate, i.e. among districts
• intradistrict, i.e. among schools
States’ ability to raise sufficient tax revenue to support high quality education varies
dramatically with the regions of the South and West generally financing education at a
lower level. (They also often have higher concentrations of low-income and minority
students and usually have lower student performance levels.) Sometimes state
legislatures decide not to adequately finance schools, i.e. make insufficient taxing effort,
while others have no choice because of limitations in their tax base. The result for
students is the same underfinanced education. The major federal education programs,
particularly Title I of NCLB, make some adjustment in their allocation formulas to
account for state effort and tax base, but it is very small and no where near makes up for
the great differences among states in their education spending. (See Chart 7).
Intrastate State Inequities
Concern about the inequitable funding of education has been the subject of litigation for
over 30 years. With the United States Supreme Court decision in the San Antonio
Independent School District v. Rodriquez in 1973, which denied that the right to
education is a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, school
finance litigation was relegated to state courts alone. State finance litigators and
policymakers focused on the unequal distribution of the local property tax base. In other
words, they sought state help for school districts with low property wealth that could not
support as much expenditure for public schooling as those with greater property wealth.
During the 1990s, litigators and policymakers switched their primary concern to the
“adequacy” of state school funding. They challenged whether financial investments were
“adequate” to insure learning success for all students, not just “minimal” and possibly
equitable. Dollar amounts were tied to results. During this period, states generally
increased their share of the public education bill, often developing foundation programs
that usually weight students by various characteristics of need including poverty, limited
English proficiency and disability.5
Today both the issues of fiscal “equity” among school districts and fiscal “adequacy” of
state investments are vitally important. Significant progress has been made in several
states, while battles rage on in others, e.g. California, Illinois, New Hampshire, and New
The federal government has been helpful through a number of large federal education
programs, particularly Title I of NCLB. Title I, first enacted in 1965 as part of the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act, distributes funds to states and on to school
districts based on the number of low-income school children. Districts then distribute
most of the funds to schools with greater amounts going to those schools with the largest
concentrations of low-income children.
Additional provisions added in the late 1990s
provided that significant proportions of Title I could be concentrated in the most high
poverty school districts, though these provisions were funded at minimal levels until
enactment of NCLB and the large funding increases that accompanied its passage.
Other titles of NCLB—Reading First, the 21st Century Community Learning Program
(afterschool programs), and the Title II Part A Teacher and Principal Training and
Recruiting Fund program—distribute most of their funds according to the Title I formula.
In 1998, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported greater equity in the
distribution of federal education funds than state funds. They found that federal funding
was more targeted to low-income students than state funding was in 45 of 47 states.7
While more recent data is not available, there is no evidence to indicate that this pattern is
untrue today. However, as indicated below, we now know that this apparent federal
targeting of high-poverty schools is greatly diluted.
Just as harmful as state funding inequities are district budgeting practices that actually
punish high-poverty schools. Districts disperse the funds they receive—be they from
federal, state, and local governments or foundations and other philanthropies—through
expenditure systems that are usually fragmented and isolated from one another.
Consequently, district officials often do not fully understand how they spend their money
and are unable to explain it to other government officials and the public. They often
make budgetary decisions that provide less money, not more for low-performing and
high-poverty schools. This happens especially when districts allocate money among
schools as if all teachers made the same salary, even though better-paid teachers, those
usually with more years of experience or advanced university credits, are much more
likely to be teaching in relatively more affluent neighborhoods. This practice is known as
staff-based resource allocation.8
The problems with district budgeting practices infect their allocation of federal funds as
well as state and local funds—often unbeknownst to local officials who believe that
federal funds provide extra funding to low-income schools. But as Marguerite Roza and
Paul Hill have demonstrated, the “comparability” (i.e. the equitable distribution of state
and local funds before Title I funds are added on top) and “supplement, not supplant”
safeguards in Title I and other federal education programs are undermined both by
district practices of budgeting based on staff averages rather than actual staff salaries and
a big loophole in the federal Title I “comparability” requirement that exempts teacher
salary differentials based on years of employment. The result is that some Title I funds
actually support non-Title I schools.
Consequently, this laws’ original and continuing
intent to help high poverty schools is gravely compromised.9
Obviously, the federal “comparability” loophole needs to be closed, but districts also
need to switch to allocation systems that account for actual teacher pay. Districts (as well
as states) need to adopt weighted pupil allocation systems, instead of staff allocation
systems, that account for variation in student need based on income, English proficiency,
disability, and perhaps other measures of special need. If this occurred, then highpoverty
schools that struggle to retain more experienced teachers could recapture funds
and expend them on extra teacher training, more teachers and smaller classes, afterschool
programs or many other uses.10
While student achievement in the United States is inching up and state standards and
accountability systems are being tweaked, the global society is racing ahead with
improved education opportunities for its citizens. To continue competing successfully
worldwide, the United States needs to ratchet up its educational expectations and make
The Renewing Our Schools, Securing Our Future: National Task Force on Public
Education, a joint initiative of the Center for American Progress and the Institute for
Responsive Education, recently released a report entitled Getting Smarter, Becoming
Fairer: A Progressive Agenda for a Stronger Nation. The report contains four main
recommendations, including that:
The federal government should support the crafting, adoption, and
promotion of voluntary, rigorous national curriculum standards in core
subject areas so that students can succeed in every academic setting and
in the national and global marketplaces. It should also expand national
accountability measures and assist low-performing schools and districts.
It should initiate a national conversation about not only the importance of
standards and accountability but also the need for paying sufficiently and
equitably for public schooling, including modern and safe facilities, from
pre-school to college.
As the Task Force noted, over the past two decades, the issues of national standards,
national tests, and education finance inequity have been subject to national debate, but
never simultaneously nor in a sustained way. It is time to reopen and reinvigorate these
debates and to join them together.
1 The Education Trust, Press Release: “Closing the Achievement Gap: 2005 NAEP Reading and Math
Results Show Some Gains, But Slowing Progress,” (Washington, DC: Oct. 19, 2005).
2 Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Press Release: “Gains on State Reading Tests Evaporated on 2005
NAEP,” (Washington, DC: Oct. 19, 2005).
3 However, federal financial support for states to develop the capacity to help low performing districts and
schools has been woefully inadequate.
4 Odden, Allan, “Equity and Adequacy in School Finance Today,” Phi Delta Kappan (Bloomington, IN:
6 States demonstrating more success in dealing with fiscal equity challenges include Arkansas, Maryland,
Massachusetts, and Wyoming.
7 General Accounting Office, School Finance: State and Federal Efforts to Target Core Students
(Washington DC: General Accounting Office, 1998). This study relied on 1991-92 data, the last year data
8 Paul T. Hill and Marguerite Roza, “How Within-District Spending Inequities Help Some Schools to Fail,”
Brookings Papers on Education Policy, (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2004).
9 Marguerite Roza with Larry Miller & Paul Hill,“Strengthening Title I Funds to Help High Poverty
Schools: How Title I Funds Fit into District Allocation Patterns,” Center on Reinventing Public Education,
Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington (Seattle, WA: Aug. 18, 2005).
10 Supra, note 8.
Cynthia G. Brown, Director of Education Policy, Center for American Progress
Cynthia G. Brown is Director of Education Policy and served as Director of Renewing our Schools, Securing our Future National Task Force on Public Education, a joint initiative of the Center and the Institute for America's Future. Cindy has spent over 35 years working in a variety of professional positions addressing high-quality, equitable public education. Prior to joining the Center for American Progress, she was an independent education consultant who advised and wrote for local and state school systems, education associations, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and a corporation. From 1986 through September 2001, Brown served as Director of the Resource Center on Educational Equity of the Council of Chief State School Officers. She was appointed by President Carter as the first Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education (1980). Prior to that position, she served as Principal Deputy of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's (HEW) Office for Civil Rights. Subsequent to this government service, she was Co-Director of the nonprofit Equality Center. Before the Carter Administration, she worked for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the Children's Defense Fund, and began her career in the HEW Office for Civil Rights as an investigator. Brown has a Master's in Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. She serves as Chair of both the Institute for Responsive Education and American Youth Policy Forum Boards of Directors and on the Boards of Directors of the Hyde Leadership Public Charter School and the National Association for Teen Fitness and Exercise.
Elena Rocha, Domestic Policy Analyst
Elena Rocha serves as domestic policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. A graduate of the University of Arizona, Elena earned a master's degree in public service and administration at Texas A&M University, where she spent a two-year fellowship studying advanced public management and community and economic development. Her graduate project on chemical demilitarization was presented at a Congressional briefing and to the National Academy of Sciences. Elena has worked with KEI Pearson, Centro Alameda, Inc. and the National Association for Bilingual Education. She began her career in public policy as a White House intern during the Clinton administration, followed by internships with the Smithsonian Institution.
Cindy Brown and Elena Rocha
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES