Undermining School Progress

By George Allen
Sunday, May 22, 2005

American students' academic achievement must improve for our young people to compete in today's global economy. To achieve this important goal, it is vital that we demand greater accountability from our public schools and require that they prove to us that they are teaching our students and not just relying on social promotion to hand out diplomas and passing grades.

In 1995, when I was governor of Virginia, we launched an innovative, standards-based accountability reform: the Virginia Standards of Learning, or Champion Schools Initiative. We used rigorous, test-based accountability to demand that our schools produce measurably higher academic achievement levels among our students. Nearly 10 years later, Virginia's SOL program is successful; 84 percent of all public schools are now fully accredited based on rising test scores on our own SOL tests, and students' scores on both state and national tests are rising as well.

Unfortunately, Virginia's successful accountability program is being threatened by a federal program that has the same goal. In 2001, at the behest of the president, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act. Noble in its intent to educate every child, this legislation has, in its implementation, attempted to micromanage the states' education practices to an extent well beyond that of any previous federal effort in our nation's history.

The inherent problem with No Child Left Behind is that it fails to recognize and respect the work and accomplishments of states, such as Virginia, that were raising student achievement through standards and accountability many years before No Child Left Behind. Today students in Virginia must earn their high school diplomas by passing the requisite number of end-of-course tests in English, science, algebra and history.

Sadly, many aspects of the No Child Left Behind law are confusing parents and undermining public confidence in the SOL program in Virginia at the very moment its success should be apparent. My concern is not about federal funding levels, which have increased significantly under President Bush. Rather, it is that No Child Left Behind is hampering the efforts of states that have led the nation in fighting for high standards and accountability in our schools.

For this reason, I've introduced legislation in Congress with Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that would amend, not end, No Child Left Behind. It establishes guidelines under which a state can receive freedom from the "adequate yearly progress" formula in NCLB, a formula that is illogical and confusing to the public. This blunt, one-size-fits-all federal measuring stick is forcing Virginia students to meet lower federal standards!

Yet my bill allows no retreat in the effort for accountability. On the contrary, it requires all states to adopt high academic standards and rigorous accountability systems. It maintains the noble principle of No Child Left Behind that states should test all students, publicize the results, work to close the achievement gaps affecting minority groups and hold schools accountable for results.

My legislation actually expands academic standards and testing to the subjects of U.S. history, civics and writing. This approach will prevent school systems from minimizing the importance of those subjects, on which testing of students is not required under the federal system. In addition, the bill is consistent with the vision of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution in that it reduces the counterproductive federal intrusion into state and local control of education represented by No Child Left Behind.

Like President Bush, I would like to see all U.S. schools producing better results for the good of all America's youth. But I would hate to see the federal initiative for higher standards undermine the cause of standards for students in states where high academic standards and accountability measures are already in place. Ultimately, we should not allow the self-defeating micromanagement that is characteristic of No Child Left Behind to undercut such states.

The writer is a Republican senator from Virginia.

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