Arizona Republic
September 9, 2007

Phoenix, AZ

Author: Matthew Ladner, Special for the Republic

Estimated printed pages: 2
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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. But there are growing concerns that the bill will undermine the public-school transparency it sought to establish.
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. NCLB required testing proficiency for students, but Congress left control over test content and the definition of "proficient" with the states.

Sadly, states have begun avoiding federal sanctions by making their tests easier to pass. Education-policy scholars around the country have begun to refer to this as "the race to the bottom." This problem will only get worse as the federally mandated passing threshold increases.

Without a fix from Congress, students will take meaningless exams, hard-won gains in public-school transparency will be lost, and testing will suffer a fatal blow as a credible education-reform strategy.

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.

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 Performance Agreements that will focus funds on successful programs, outline plans to improve student achievement and narrow achievement gaps.

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.

Sen. Jon Kyl and Reps. Jeff Flake, Trent Franks, Rick Renzi and John Shadegg have all expressed support for the Cornyn-DeMint proposal. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne flew to Washington to give a speech in support of it.

Presidential candidate John McCain and Gov. Janet Napolitano are also well-positioned to lead on this issue. McCain voted for NCLB but has yet to comment on the race to the bottom effect. Napolitano has denounced NCLB and now has a constructive alternative to embrace.

W need to have high expectations of our schools and students, but mandates from Washington won't get us where we want to be.

Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., is vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute,
Edition:  Final Chaser
Section:  VALLEY & State
Page:  B3
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Record Number:  pho175078418