Why We Need a National School Test

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By William J. Bennett and Rod Paige
Thursday, September 21, 2006

We need to find better and more efficient ways to produce an educated population and close the achievement gaps in our education system. Americans do ultimately get themselves educated -- at work, after school, online, in adulthood -- but a lot of time and money are wasted in the process.

Ever since the Commission on Excellence in Education declared in 1983 that America is "at risk" because of the lagging performance of its schools, this country has been struggling to reform its K-12 system. The education "establishment" has wrongly insisted that more money (or more teachers, more computers, more everything) would yield better schools and smarter kids; that financial inputs would lead to cognitive outputs. This is not so.

Forty years ago the sociologist James S. Coleman made clear that there's no reliable connection between the resources going into a school and the learning that comes out. Fifty years ago economist Milton Friedman made clear that in education, as in other spheres, monopolies don't work as well as markets. That's why most Republicans and some Democrats favor school choice in its myriad versions and why many, like us, have also embraced today's other important education reform strategy: standards, testing and tough accountability for schools.

But there's a problem. Out of respect for federalism and mistrust of Washington, much of the GOP has expected individual states to set their own academic standards and devise their own tests and accountability systems. That was the approach of the No Child Left Behind Act -- which moved as boldly as it could while still achieving bipartisan support. It sounds good, but it is working badly. A new Fordham Foundation report shows that most states have deployed mediocre standards, and there's increasing evidence that some are playing games with their tests and accountability systems.

Take Tennessee, for example. It reports to its residents that a whopping 87 percent of its fourth-graders are "proficient" in reading. Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that the number is more like 27 percent. That's a big difference. Or consider Oklahoma. In one year the number of schools on its "needs improvement" list dropped by 85 percent -- not because they improved or their students learned more but because a bureaucrat in the state education department changed the way Oklahoma calculates "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law.

So while the act is clearly starting to get results, it is also starting to suffer from the law of unintended consequences. We can now see that it gives states entirely too much discretion over standards and tests while giving federal bureaucrats too much control over how schools operate.

The remedy? As both of us have long argued, Washington should set sound national academic standards and administer a high-quality national test. Publicize everybody's results, right down to the school level. Then Washington should butt out.

States that prefer to cling to their own standards and tests -- and endure the rules and meddling of federal bureaucrats -- would be free to do so. Some surely would. But many would welcome a new compact with the Education Department.

We're aware that many Republicans are skeptical. After all, the Constitution says nothing about education, and for over two centuries states have been responsible for meeting the nation's education needs. But in a world of fierce economic competition, we can't afford to pretend that the current system is getting us where we need to go. Greater federal interference is not the answer -- but neither is a naive commitment to "states' rights." A new model -- standards set nationally, daily decisions made locally -- strikes the best balance.

We're also painfully aware that national standards and tests are hard to get right -- and even harder to get through Congress. Another new report outlines four ways in which this might be done. Several scenarios would rely on a "bottom-up" approach, with states working together on a voluntary basis to forge common expectations, lessening the chances that Washington would mess them up.

This is a conversation that should start now and continue through the 2008 elections and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. But right-thinking Republicans should think long and hard before opposing national standards and tests. Competently done, they would go a long way toward assuring America a more well-educated population and a bright future -- and toward reining in Washington's impulse to micromanage our nation's schools.

William J. Bennett was education secretary under President Ronald Reagan. Rod Paige was education secretary under President George W. Bush.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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