- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A private bipartisan commission yesterday said Congress, as it renews the No Child Left Behind law, should move toward national education standards and tests that states could voluntarily adopt.

“It is an idea whose time has come,” said former Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes, a Democrat who co-led the 15-member panel. The group issued 75 recommendations for lawmakers tasked with renewing the five-year-old law.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, said Congress “is much more willing to take a look” at this type of idea now than it was in past years.

With the implementation of NCLB, “there’s more pressure to improve the standard of education,” said Mr. Thompson, who co-led the group with Mr. Barnes.

The current law requires testing in reading and math annually in grades three through eight and once in high school, with the goal of having all students proficient by 2014.

The commission — created by the Aspen Institute and funded by several education groups, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — suggests that a national panel be created to come up with national standards and tests for reading, math and science.

The proposal recommends the standards be voluntary for states. States could opt instead to alter their existing standards or do nothing, but the government would examine these states, compare their standards with the national ones, and make the results public, the report says.

Neal McCluskey, education analyst at the Cato Institute, said moving toward national standards means eventually such standards will be forced on the states, and teachers unions and other powerful interest groups will try to keep the standards low.

He said school choice is the best option but “unfortunately, the commission chose to ignore real parental choice and to stick with top-down methods.”

Meanwhile, among its other recommendations, the panel would require states to measure teachers’ effectiveness, based mostly on three years’ worth of student test scores. Teachers who struggle would be given professional development help, but those still struggling after seven years wouldn’t be allowed to teach in low-income schools. Principals also would be held to similarly high standards under the panel’s plan.

The National Education Association balked at this. NEA President Reg Weaver said the “ill-conceived proposal would add even more bureaucratic hoops for teachers to jump through without adding resources to get the job done.”

The panel also recommends that students must be proficient in science by 2014, that high-performing public schools set aside 10 percent of their seats for students in chronically failing schools, and that states evaluate the effectiveness of extra tutoring help provided under the No Child Left Behind law.

And the panel’s plan would change the way the law measures a school’s yearly performance, to give a school credit for making progress even if it falls short of a specific goal.

Most of the top national education leaders — including Education Secretary Margaret Spellings — didn’t comment extensively on specific recommendations, opting instead to broadly congratulate the panel’s yearlong effort and promise to discuss the suggestions.

Senate education panel Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said, “today should mark the beginning of a broad, open and inclusive discussion.” Republican education leaders such as Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California echoed similar sentiments.

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