Debra J. Saunders

With Democrats in control of Congress now, expect them to try to water down No Child Left Behind, as Washington works on a bill to reauthorize the landmark Bush education reform enacted in 2002. That is, expect Democrats to try to squeeze as much money as possible from federal taxpayers -- they rarely complain about spending -- while watering down accountability requirements so that schools don't have to do a better job teaching children. And they'll do it by undermining the testing system so that illiterate students can be labeled as success stories.

Or, as Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said during a phone interview Friday, "All the people who have railed against too much testing now are for multiple measures" -- which entail more tests, but tests that can hide what children are not learning. "The more complicated" the tests they propose, "frankly, the more obfuscation" results, Spellings noted.

As Education Week reported in May, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a new member and former teacher, wants to add portfolio assessments of student work -- that can include essays, drawings and reports -- to measure whether students are reading and doing math at grade level. National Education Association President Reg Weaver has proposed the same.

Which shows, as Spellings pointed out, that they can support more testing -- if it is amorphous testing that can pave over gaps in a child's knowledge. The argument for portfolios, Spellings noted, is, "We're over-testing (students), so let's have more tests." You've heard the arguments against standardized tests. They are "one size fits all." They do not measure the scope of a child's understanding. They are boring. They represent drill and kill. They are unfair to non-English speakers.

But, as Spellings noted, "The reason we have assessments is to find out how many poor and minority children read at grade level." If schools had not made a practice of graduating students who do not read or compute at grade level, these tests would not be necessary. But in that so many students have fallen behind -- while their grades have not -- standardized tests have become an essential tool in the public's quest to find out which schools are failing students, then fixing those schools. Standardized tests also can help determine which teaching methodologies and textbooks work best with different student groups.

Where critics see "one size fits all," others see tests that can find gaps in student knowledge -- so that teachers can fix them. In June, a report by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy found that significant improvement among elementary school math students in 37 of 41 states, as well as improvement in middle school reading in 20 out of 39 states, and in high school reading in 16 out of 37 states, according to The Washington Post. After years of dumbed-down education, these modest gains are cause for celebration.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., according to Education Week, once called No Child Left Behind an attempt by right-wing Republicans to "undermine our confidence in our public schools." In fact, the bill, while imperfect, was designed to increase confidence in public schools, not by pretending failing schools work well, but by making failing schools better.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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