No Child law should be dropped, but testing needs improvement
Arizona Republic
March 31, 2008


Matthew Ladner
Special for the Republic

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The Arizona House of Representatives is close to passing a bill to opt out of the federal government's No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Their reasons are sound, and what happens next is crucial.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in NCLB is that it creates an entirely perverse incentive for states to lower their academic standards in order to meet a federal goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

The law reflects contradictory urges regarding education policy. On the one hand, some want Congress to act to improve education, and on the other, some wish to preserve the tradition of state and local control of schools.

In NCLB, Congress attempted to finesse this contradiction, but failed to do so successfully. The law requires states to test almost all students and to have an ever-increasing percentage of them reach proficiency in all tests by 2014. NCLB leaves the content and the passing thresholds of these tests, however, to the states.

You don't need a Ph.D. in game theory to see the problem with this, just a little common sense. As "proficiency" requirements have risen, states have begun to dummy down their tests to avoid federal sanctions.

Alarmingly, none of the major proposals put forward in discussions of the pending federal reauthorization of NCLB have even acknowledged this problem exists. This willful denial comes despite a recent University of California at Berkley study that found 10 of 12 states studied had dummied down their state accountability tests.

Congress must now make an actual choice about which level of government should predominate in education policy - or the price will be very high.

Arizona also has choices to make. Sadly, the state Board of Education has been among the leaders in dummying down of state tests, albeit with the NCLB gun pointed at its head.

Arizona, in fact, would be in a much stronger position to withdraw from NCLB if it had its own house in order on testing and accountability. Unfortunately, it does not.

The state has lowered the passing threshold on AIMS and has created a version of the TerraNova exam that provides completely unreliable data. This is Arizona's mess, and Arizona must clean it up regardless of what happens in Washington.

Arizona parents and taxpayers do need reliable testing data, and now, NCLB hinders progress towards that vital goal.

If Arizona lawmakers are ready to commit themselves to protecting our state's educational autonomy, they should also seek to improve the state's broken system of testing.

Matthew Ladner is vice president of research at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute