- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2008



When I was governor more than 10 years ago, we significantly reformed Virginia’s public school system and stopped social promotion. The key to our reform was creating new standards of learning (SOL) in math, reading, writing, science, economics and history for grades K-12. We instituted School Performance Report Cards so that parents, students, teachers and taxpayers could see how each school performed. Ours was one of the first standards- and measurement-based accountability education systems in the nation.

Recently, an American Federation of Teachers’ report rated Virginia as the only state in the nation to have “strong standards” in all levels and subjects, according to its criteria for clarity, specificity and comprehensiveness. Virginia’s SOLs have been proven successful, with student achievement rising significantly on a variety of tests, including SATs and national NAEP tests, and in all subject areas, with many more students mastering subjects from basic reading to advanced math and AP courses.

When the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was proposed six years ago, I was hopeful that it would provide the structure and incentives for schools across America to improve similar to Virginia’s schools. As the NCLB was much less demanding in academic standards and testing than our Virginia reforms, I expected that it would fold in easily with Virginia’s existing high academic standards. Unfortunately, the NCLB managed to muddy the waters for states that have or want high academic standards. By forcing bureaucratic federal determinations, the NCLB provides perverse incentives to states to set the lowest, most easily cleared standards to avoid sanctions. This problem of “dumbing down” will only get worse if the NCLB is not logically and promptly changed.

Similar to our approach in Virginia, one of the results of the NCLB that has received near universal acclaim is the disaggregation of test results into subgroups of students on the basis of ethnic background, economic situation, disabilities, and limited English-speaking ability. Breaking down these test results has shown us where pockets of students are being perpetually left behind while the school overall may be succeeding. However, the way the federal bureaucracy manipulates those subgroup numbers in evaluating the performance of a school has been unfair, illogical and, ultimately, detrimental to students and schools.

The NCLB requires every school to show adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward the 2014 goal in every subgroup simultaneously. Thus, if one subgroup of 60 students fails to show AYP, then the entire school is labeled as “needing improvement,” and NCLB-mandated sanctions go into effect, even if 80 percent of the students are learning and passing the exams.

For example, one of the subgroups is Limited English Proficiency (LEP), or non-native English-speaking students who are learning English. NCLB rules require students who are English beginners to take reading tests just like those taken by fluent English speakers, and many have not yet learned enough English to pass the test. Schools with increasingly diverse populations of LEP students, including many in the Northern Virginia area, have failed to meet NCLB goals specifically because of this demographic. It just does not make any sense to fail an entire school because a few young students who are new to America have not yet learned English.

This is just one of the ways in which NCLB’s standards and sanctions have created as many problems as they have solved, in addition to the enormous costs in time and paperwork that contradictory NCLB reporting requirements have imposed. One of the best proposals to retain the successes of NCLB and to avoid its perverse incentives and costs has been introduced by Sens. Jim DeMint and John Cornyn and by Rep. Pete Hoekstra: the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act (A-PLUS).

Both House and Senate versions of A-PLUS would dramatically reform NCLB to restore state and local control over education while retaining accountability through state-level standards, testing, and reporting to parents and taxpayers. Each state could opt out of NCLB by entering into a performance agreement with the federal Department of Education. The state would receive federal education funds but would be free to spend that money to further its own particular education priorities. In exchange, the state would have to maintain its standards and goals and an accountability system for school failures and must publicly report results of student achievement, including disaggregated information on sub-groups of students. If the state does not meet the terms of the agreement, the state’s schools would return to the NCLB system.

Reform such as A-PLUS would preserve beneficial aspects of NCLB - goals and consistent testing that provide real results and expose underachievement to parents and taxpayers - but restore freedom to states to use their competitive creativity to meet academic goals. Congress must act on NCLB reform - or the increasing number of school failures under NCLB will heighten the pressure on states to “dumb down” standards, harming the education of all students and defeating the very purpose of the law.

Former Sen. George Allen, who also served as Virginia’s governor, is the Reagan Ranch Presidential Scholar for Young America’s Foundation.

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