Prayer came to public schools in Texas on April 30. Third-graders who did not pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) in March had to retake the test that day, and many were probably asking God for guidance about which answer to mark.
I hope all those students pass the test, because it's painful for children to be left behind. And yet, we need to ask what a passing grade means. Since the Texas emphasis on testing has now become a model for the nation through the federal No Child Left Behind Act, we also need to ask whether that approach will reverse the educational rot particularly evident in many urban schools.
Judging by Texas newspapers, passing grades equal triumph. When 89 percent of students passed the test on their first try, the Dallas Morning News crowed, "TAKS scores draw cheers," the Austin American-Statesman opined, "Students rise to challenge," and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times called out, "Texas kids ace TAKS." But few newspapers mentioned that the passing score is only 55 percent.
Nor have many newspapers in Texas exposed the workings of another test used to rate schools and school districts: If 55 percent of students get 55 percent of the answers right on easy tests, the school or district is deemed acceptable. Higher scores lead to schools being rated "recognized" and "exemplary." Those honors were supposed to be for the top schools, but in eight years the number of "recognized" or "exemplary" schools has jumped from 9 percent to 61 percent.
Are these stats going by too fast? Here's a summary: For a Texas school to be acceptable, no more than 45 percent of students can be left behind. For a student's performance to be acceptable, he can't be wrong more than 45 percent of the time. Why not ask students how many legs an elephant has, and accept any answer from three to five? (If students overwhelmingly recognize that an elephant has four legs, call the school "exemplary.")
The bottom line is that school officials typically use tests not to diagnose educational deficiencies but, as one spokesman said, "to maintain our community confidence." The No Child Left Behind Act that the last Congress passed (after President Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy became strange bedfellows) allows schools to play similar number games. The Act will help to maintain national confidence in public schools -- for a couple of years, until people see that millions of Johnnies still can't read.
The enemy here is not testing, which can have teeth when combined with full parental choice, but educational gamesmanship. With school budgets riding on tests, administrators manipulate expectations and results to preserve the public school establishment. Sadly, it's hard to find out which tricks are being played, because many reporters are lapdogs for liberal educrats, just as CNN was for Saddam Hussein.
Happily, a strategy for truly improving schools exists. It's based on the American way, competition. Grow and expand alternatives to public schools. Put authority over children's education in the hands of parents, through vouchers and education tax credits. Let schools compete for students. Some public schools are solid and would hold their own against vouchers; others, particularly in inner-city areas, need a tough challenge.
School choice proposals are slowly making progress. Colorado has a new law setting up vouchers, and Arizona already gives tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds. Courts have ruled in favor of city voucher plans in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Legislatures in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Louisiana and other states are considering vouchers.
It's now two decades since the National Commission on Education issued a dire report. That broad-based commission warned in 1983, "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." Not much has improved in 20 years.
It's time to stop warring on children stuck in bad schools, and also time to go beyond testing that sometimes covers up deep problems.