Debra J. Saunders

When educrats call for "a broader definition of rigor," beware.

What they really want is to broaden the definition of rigor until it includes dumbed-down drivel.

National Education Association President Reg Weaver used those words in March when he spoke to Congress as it sets out to reauthorize President Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation. The NEA's idea of rigor, of course, is to make it harder to tell if schools are failing students. How? By going after standardized tests, because Weaver regurgitated, their scores "reflect little more than a student's ability to regurgitate facts."

As Don Soifer, education analyst for the Lexington Institute noted, such talk harbors "a worse case scenario for the American public -- all of the money for NCLB and none of the accountability."

According to NEA documents, the association wants states to be able to adopt standards and assessments that "include more than what can be assessed on a paper-and-pencil multiple choice test."

"Multiple measures" are needed because: "Schools are held accountable based solely on a one-day snapshot of student performance on a standardized reading test and a standardized math test."

The NEA has recommended that states be allowed to add portfolios -- collections of student work that can include essays, drawings and reports -- to their NCLB assessment, along with other measures, such as attendance rates and the number of students enrolled in advanced classes.

It sounds so reasonable that it is easy to forget that Washington passed President Bush's NCLB measure because too many public schools produce students who cannot read at grade level and are semi-literate in math. Or that standardized tests were needed to push schools away from fuzzy content that promised higher learning and critical thinking, but instead delivered middle-school students who could not comprehend what they read, spell or multiply 11 by 11.

"There's no doubt that, if done right, a portfolio can be a valuable tool for a teacher and kid. What it's not good for is measuring what an overall impact a school or school district or state is having comparatively," Soifer noted.

Multiple-choice tests may not determine everything students know, but they can help ascertain what students do not know (of what they should know). They can help districts figure out which approaches and curricula work best for their students.

They can be graded quickly and easily.

They cannot be subverted by well-meaning graders who want to make a class score better than it should. With multiple-choice tests, grading is not subjective.

No matter who grades the test, the same answer gets the same score.

Debra J. Saunders

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