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NCLB Outrages

More Tests, More Money Likely In Revised No Child Left Behind

Jed Graham

Five years after it passed with overwhelming support, the No Child Left Behind Act is up for renewal and could see major changes.

The law requires states to conduct testing in reading and math from grades 3 through 8 and ensure all teachers are "highly qualified." It also applies pressure on -- and promises help for -- schools that fail to show adequate progress.

But a consensus is forming that many state tests used to measure schools are a poor benchmark. A private commission wants Congress to insist that teachers be "highly qualified" and "effective."

The Democrats who have ascended to power have long complained that the extra funding for schools has been far too meager. In short, every major facet of the law will be wrangled over.

More Tests, More Money

While reviews over the law's impact are mixed, and another bipartisan deal is less than certain, the broad direction of education policy is clear: more measuring, more accountability and, likely, more cash.

"There's little mood on either side of the table to roll back NCLB," Martin Davis of the education-focused Thomas B. Fordham Foundation said at a recent Cato Institute forum.

Key Democrats who helped craft the legislation, Rep. George Miller (news, bio, voting record) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), now run their education committees.

"Reform and resources is still the right recipe for our schools," Kennedy recently said of his approach to reauthorizing the law.

Kennedy noted that some local leaders want the law repealed. He acknowledged "challenges in implementation," especially money.

But, he said, "turning back the clock on the law is no solution -- especially for the neediest students who gain the most from its reforms."

GOP leadership also backs reauthorization. Rep. John Boehner (news, bio, voting record), R-Ohio, who helped spearhead the law as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, is now the top House Republican.

President Bush, No Child Left Behind is a cornerstone of his domestic legacy.

Bush recently spoke about the achievement gap that separates white students from African-American and Latino students.

"It's not acceptable to the country," he said. "It forebodes not a positive future, so long as that achievement gap exists."

But because of No Child Left Behind, he said, "That gap is closing."

The law's supporters point 15 National Assessment of Education Progress test scores of fourth- and eighth-graders that rose from 2003 to 2005, with gains in math for black and Hispanic students.

The privately funded Commission on No Child Left Behind noted "promising signs," but said NAEP scores "have moved up only slightly, and reading achievement seems to have stalled."

The panel co-chairmen, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes -- a Democrat -- and Tommy Thompson, Bush's former health and human services secretary wrote in their report last month that "the law must be dramatically improved."

A crowded legislative calendar and presidential politics might work against reauthorization this year -- or even in 2008, said Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the Education Sector think tank and a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House.

Judging Teachers

If a deal emerges, he said, it likely will focus on the No Child panel's proposals and involve more money.

The commission, which was hosted by the Aspen Institute and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other nonprofits, didn't steer clear of controversy.

It wants teachers to be judged not just on qualifications, but also on effectiveness, based on student test results and principal reviews.

The National Education Association attacked the mandate "as an ill-conceived proposal that sets teachers up for failure."

Whether Kennedy and Miller can get fellow Democrats behind a proposal to hold teachers accountable is "the big question for the year," Rotherham said.

Another commission priority is to develop voluntary national standards and tests. Kennedy had already endorsed the idea. The Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 large urban districts, also supports national standards.

No Child Left Behind set a goal for all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. But it lets each state set its own standards.

Mississippi's state test shows 89% of fourth-graders are proficient in reading. But just 18% were proficient based on a federal test.

"(The law) created the mother of all perverse incentives," said Davis of the Fordham Institute. "States with high standards have been under incredible pressure to lower those standards."

Teachers aren't just teaching to the test -- they're teaching to a test that sets the bar too low, critics say.

"We are now on the road to a national curriculum, national accountability, national testing," Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R.-Mich., said at the Cato forum.

But he is among the band of conservative lawmakers who aren't happy about it. Hoekstra is introducing a bill to let states opt out without being denied funding.

— Jed Graham
Investor's Business Daily


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