No national education standards?

Posted: Jun 15, 2002 12:00 AM
As a precocious political theorist I once diplomatically accused my seventh-grade math teacher of employing Marxist tactics for announcing he was going to give every student a C on the next exam, irrespective of their test performance. Recently, I've run across a couple of news stories involving President Bush's education bill that reminded me of that teacher's desire to reduce all of us students to our lowest common denominator and undermine our incentive to achieve. I was always somewhat skeptical of the bill because, among other reasons, it increases federal involvement (and funding) in something that is none of Washington's business, under the Constitution or otherwise. I was also dubious of the boast that the new law would preserve state control by promising the implementation of no national education standards. And I was especially dispirited when the president, in order to achieve passage of his bill, all but abandoned its primary redeeming feature: the school choice component. Yes, there is still something in the bill about charter schools, but private school choice was placed on the back burner. While the promise of no national standards sounded good on the surface, I had difficulty conceiving how the federal government could enforce meaningful accountability, which it guaranteed it would do, without some uniform objective measure. I was particularly unconvinced that the federal law -- dangling money over the heads of all state educational systems -- would not impact local control over education standards. These two recent news articles, unfortunately, have validated my fears. The Connecticut Board of Education will soon be voting on a proposal to
lower Connecticut's standards for student proficiency to conform to federal requirements. You read that correctly. Presently, the state has relatively stringent standards. But Theodore Sergi, commissioner of the state Education Department, is trying to reduce those standards to avoid losing federal funds in a few years when federal "accountability" kicks in under the new federal law. How can this be? Well, the "No Child Left Behind" law is misnamed. It is not geared to individuals, but to groups (called subgroups) -- racial and ethnic, economic, limited English proficiency and special needs. Whereas most states base educational performance on the average score of all students, the federal bill provides that state schools will measure up only if all of the state's subgroups "make adequate yearly progress" on the state education tests. That is, the law provides that approximately 75 percent of the students in each group must pass their end-of-grade reading and math tests to avoid federal ire. It is certainly a laudable-sounding goal to seek educational improvement among individuals in all groups of society. But I long for the day when we can get away from categorizing people along racial and economic lines. Of greater concern, however, is an unintended, but altogether foreseeable, consequence of the federal bill's insistence on seeing us all as members of a particular race or socio-economic class. That is that some states, such as Connecticut, are going to reduce their overall standards in order to pass muster under this federal color and class-consciousness orientation. Connecticut educators say that they are going to have to lower their standards to make sure that all of their subgroups will be able to show annual yearly progress. Under standards now in force the test scores fall into four bands, with only the top band considered proficient. The new proposal would, with the simple wave of an anti-academic magic wand, arbitrarily bump up the second band into the proficient category. Presumably, by dumbing down the standards, all groups will have a better chance of meeting the national standards -- er, excuse me, I forgot, there are no national standards. North Carolina educators are facing a similar dilemma. The experience of Seawell Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C., illustrates the problem. This school is distinguishing itself for academic excellence, with nearly 90 percent of its 690 students testing at their grade level or higher on the state standardized tests. But if the school continues at this pace, it will flunk the federal guidelines to take effect next year and face federal sanctions. The federal bill may be loaded with good intentions, but good intentions don't ensure good results. It may be too soon to tell, but if other states experience the same problems, this law could actually reduce overall academic standards while doing little to help the underachieving groups anyway. Conforming state tests to allow state educators to demonstrate group "progress" will enable politicians to congratulate themselves because "no group is left behind." But the credibility of their assertion will depend on what the meaning of "behind" is.