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Reforming school reform

"Reforming school reform" Continued...

Issue: "'Infidel'," March 3, 2007

Is NCLB increasing student performance in return? That depends on who's doing the measuring. The NCLB commission's report, released Feb. 13, stacked 2003 annual assessment testing for fourth-grade reading in the 50 states and the District of Columbia against the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP assessment, known colloquially as "the nation's report card," has long been considered the gold standard of educational assessment because of the independence of NAEP's governing board.

The comparison revealed a startling disconnect-a "proficiency gap" that ranged, on average, from 20 to 50 percentage points.

For example, Colorado's state test showed that 87 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in reading. But the NAEP assessment showed that only 37 percent were proficient. Similar disparities cropped up for New Hampshire, New Jersey, Minnesota, and 22 other states. In Mississippi, the gap was 69 percentage points.

The wide chasm between NAEP and state-by-state results has caused some education researchers to question whether state education boards are "gaming the system," deliberately setting rock-bottom standards in order to meet NCLB's AYP requirements.

Meanwhile, NCLB's subgroup paradigm may not play fair with schools that have a high percentage of low-income kids. A 2005 study published in the Education Researcher examined academic improvement in Virginia, which has used the same state assessment test since 1998. Mathematics scores in the state remained flat between 1998 and 2001. Between 2001 and 2003, post-NCLB, students in middle- and high-poverty schools improved in math and reading at higher rates than those in low-poverty schools. But because income levels correlate strongly with academic performance and the failure of a single subgroup can torpedo a school's ability to meet AYP, high- and middle-poverty schools were more likely to be identified as a "school in need of improvement."

Education researchers say NCLB should take more factors into account when assessing the achievement of low-income learners. But the NCLB commission is recommending more-not less-homogeneity, such as the formation of national academic standards.

Some conservative groups, such as the Fordham Foundation, have endorsed some version of national standards in the past. But CER's Jeanne Allen said such a move would invite more federal bureaucracy. "If NCLB had to be created to stem the tide of bad federal involvement, what makes us think that increasing federal involvement on the standards level would improve education?"

Allen said academic standards should "be created closer to home," where parents and voters can hold education bureaucracies accountable.

Sen. Cornyn is working to that end, along with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). This spring, the senators will introduce the A-PLUS Act of 2007. The bill would restore to NCLB a "charter state" option, one element of the original Bush plan that wound up on Congress' cutting-room floor. A-PLUS would allow states to opt out of federal regulatory burdens by signing five-year performance agreements with the Department of Education in exchange for flexibility. Each participating state would have to come up with its own academic achievement goals and demonstrate an accountability system for meeting them.

Sen. DeMint said the measure is a necessary first step toward rescuing NCLB. The program "started with some good ideas, but what Congress didn't mess up, the bureaucracy has messed up," he said. "We need to look at a way to allow states to get out of it in a way that would let them do it responsibly."

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