In the late 1950s, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater fought a losing battle against what ultimately became the first law providing federal funding for k-12 schools. Sen. Goldwater called 12 federal mandates in the bill "the camel's nose under the tent," and warned, "Federal aid to education invariably means federal control of education."
Since then the federal government has steadily increased its control over schools, with some successes and many failures. Today a fundamental flaw in No Child Left Behind threatens to fulfill Sen. Goldwater's prophetic warning.
When No Child Left Behind passed in 2001, it enjoyed wide bipartisan support. Appropriately, the plan focused the nation's attention on real results like test scores and graduation rates rather than on financial inputs. NCLB requires schools to test fourth and eighth grade students, and make those test results public. Schools face sanctions for underperformance. Each year the requirement for how many students must pass the tests increases until reaching 100 percent in 2014.
The tension between maintaining local control of education and federal funding with which Senator Goldwater struggled still exists today. NCLB required testing proficiency for students, but Congress left control over test content and the definition of "proficient" with the states. Essentially, Congress created sanctions for failure, but allowed the states to develop their own definition of success.
Sadly, states have begun avoiding federal sanctions by making their tests easier to pass. As the tests become easier to pass, more students do, and the federal government's annually increasing proficiency requirements are met. Education policy scholars around the country have begun referring to this as "the race to the bottom." This problem will only get worse as the federally mandated passing threshold increases.
The winning vehicle in the race to the bottom is to lower passing requirements, or cut-scores, on tests. A recent study by Berkeley scholar Dr. Bruce Fuller found evidence of lowered standards in 10 of 12 states studied. Texas students need only answer 29 of 60 math questions correctly in order to pass their state exam. This prompted one newspaper columnist to ask why the state did not simply require a single correct answer, noting, "then they could have had 100 percent passing rates."
We now recognize that question, offered in jest, is actually a real nationwide danger.
Without a fix from Congress, we will achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014 through meaningless exams. The racial achievement gap will have been falsely erased as students pass tests that are impossible to fail. In the process, we will not only deeply discredit testing as an education reform strategy, but hard-won gains in public school transparency will be lost.
Congress will consider reauthorizing NCLB this year, but the race to the bottom has already begun. It is not too late to step away from the ledge, but we must do so now.
First and foremost, the federal government should do no harm. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., have a bill (the A PLUS Act) that will allow states to design their own testing and accountability systems in cooperation with the federal government. This bill will allow states to opt-out of NCLB mandates (but keep the federal funds) by creating state-specific Performance Agreements that will focus funds on successful programs, outline plans to improve student achievement and narrow achievement gaps.
Some states are currently operating under two accountability systems, their own state system and NCLB's mandates. This bill would allow those states to meet one set of objectives, eliminating program redundancy and administrative expense.
In exchange for this flexibility, states will be required to continue making student achievement data transparent and accessible to parents and policymakers. But the 100 percent proficiency by 2014 mandate would be eliminated. This approach respects state prerogatives and ensures students are taking meaningful tests without the high-stakes nature of the current NCLB mandate.
There's nothing wrong with having high expectations of our children and their schools. In fact, we can't afford to have low expectations. But federal mandates, with financial and other threats looming, clearly aren't the path to success.