Adopting national standards will help No Child Left Behind

Washington, D.C., legislators and presidential candidates are setting up No Child Left Behind to fail. Former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards is the latest candidate to suggest that we need multiple ways to “measure higher-order thinking skills, including open-ended essays, oral examinations and projects and experiments.”

That sophistry translates into loopholes that will allow school districts to skirt accountability and confuse parents as to how well their schools are really doing.

Edwards betrays a lack of sound understanding of good educational practice as well. Kids who can’t master the basics simply aren’t ready to be tested on “higher-order thinking skills.”

Congressman George Miller, D-Martinez, chairman of the House Education Committee and an original sponsor of NCLB, has proposed watering down the law to allow additional accountability measures, such as school graduation rates to supplement standardized tests.

No Child Left Behind is already flawed because it allows states to set low standards.

We need national subject-matter standards, such as those provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, so that we have a common measuring stick for all of our students.

As Congress considers whether to refund NCLB, it’s remarkable that legislators and the Bush administration are constructing new stumbling blocks rather than sweeping away the detritus from the old ones. We should be getting rid of the 50-state standards and requiring that every student meet national subject matter standards. Instead, policymakers are looking for ways to confuse people into believing in the Lake Wobegon effect — that all our above-average schools are educating all our students, who are also above average.

Of course, the rosy picture doesn’t square real well with reality. A note on the U.S. Department of Education Web site reveals our students’ performance on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study: “By the 12th grade, U.S. performance was significantly lower relative to the international average in both science and mathematics, even among our most advanced students.”

The Programme for International Student Assessment, which is a worldwide test of 15-year-old schoolchildren’s scholastic performance, documented in 2004 that U.S. students were below average among the industrial countries surveyed in both math literacy and problem solving.

Surely, students in Mississippi and California and Vermont need to be able to do the same sorts of math problems. And English and social studies and science.

Everyone in Washington seems determined to tiptoe around the multiple-standards elephants in the living room. Even the most fervent NCLB sponsors, such as Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., won’t suggest that we require a uniform standard by which to judge our students’ success. Not a single high-profile presidential candidate has dared suggest national standards.

The only explanation as to why is that NCLB, the most ambitious education reform program in this nation’s history, has hit inevitable shoals. Rather than pull together to attempt to resurrect NCLB, it’s more expedient to suggest superfluous changes that will ensure the program’s demise.

Sending a reworked NCLB back to sea without reinforcing it with a single set of national subject matter standards guarantees that it will sink.

Regrettably, it seems that the lack of clear performance measures might be exactly the type of escape hatch excuse to which our policymakers would like to cling.

Patrick Mattimore teaches psychology at a college preparatory school inSan Francisco and is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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