Off the Hook

Sunday, March 18, 2007

IMAGINE YOUR child is having trouble passing an exam in school. Would you want the school to (a) offer extra help and ask for a better effort or (b) tell your kid to just forget about the exam? If you favor (b), then you'll approve of the recent retreat from the No Child Left Behind Act by some influential Republicans in Congress.

Legislation backed by more than 50 Republicans in the House and Senate would essentially gut No Child Left Behind, which was designed to bring some accountability to elementary and secondary education. As reported by The Post's Jonathan Weisman and Amit R. Paley, the proposal would let states choose whether to meet federal testing mandates -- and, incredibly, allow them to tap into millions of dollars of federal education money without ever having to show any results.

Contrary to the claims of its critics, No Child Left Behind is having, in its fifth year of operation, a positive impact on American education. Before it was implemented, school districts could use the performance of high-achieving students to hide the fact that they were failing students from families with low incomes, minority students, English-learners and students with disabilities. These students had been made invisible, and as a result little attention was paid to improving their performance. No Child demanded that districts show progress for these subgroups as well as overall; as a result, there are encouraging gains in student learning on the elementary level.

Challenges still exist, particularly in middle and high schools. No Child Left Behind certainly needs tweaking. For one, rather than a diluting of standards, there should be a strengthening of the assessments states use in measuring progress. The use of watered-down high school tests only camouflages the failure to prepare students for work and college. Americans are entitled to know how well their children are reading and doing math.

Then, too, many schools lack the resources and expertise to raise achievement. Help, not punishment, is needed. Provisions in No Child Left Behind for school improvement grants and raising teacher quality were never implemented. Those are the kinds of useful changes Congress should be considering, instead of signing excuses for failure.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company