Rising Scores Show Why We Can't Retreat From 'No Child Left Behind'

By Margaret Spellings
Monday, May 4, 2009

Student achievement results from the "nation's report card" published last week show that we are on the right track. Since enactment of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, which called for all students to be on grade level in reading and math by 2014, students have been making progress in reading and math in elementary and middle school. Improvement has been greatest for African American and Hispanic students and those students who are lowest-achieving.

But in our high schools, the National Assessment of Educational Progress data tell a troubling story, especially in light of our need to compete in a global knowledge economy.

Scores continue to be flat for 17-year-olds in both reading and math over the almost 30-year history of the test. We know that only half of African American and Hispanic students graduate from high school on time. Yet policymakers have not had the courage to use the real accountability that is working in our elementary and middle schools in our high schools.

It's no accident that the United States has had nine straight years of increasing scores for elementary school students. In the decades before No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002 and the state reforms that led to it, taxpayers spent hundreds of billions of dollars on education and hoped for the best. Since No Child Left Behind, we have expected results. The law required that every student in grades three through eight be assessed annually in reading and math, that those results be disaggregated and that the information be provided to educators and parents. And that is exactly the age group for which we are seeing results. Consider: In the 10 years since 1999, reading scores for 9-year-olds have risen eight points; in the nearly three decades before that, scores rose only four points. In the past 10 years, math scores have increased 11 points, while in the nearly three decades prior, scores rose only 13 points.

Teachers and principals who have embraced accountability have made these increases possible. And while this is good progress, we should not be satisfied. The achievement gap continues to plague our country. Because of the state and federal assessment data we now have, we know precisely which districts, schools, teachers and students need help and which are doing well. We've diagnosed the problem -- the approximately 4,000 schools that have failed to meet their annual goals for five straight years and the 2,000 high schools that produce more than half of all dropouts. Now we have to deal with those chronically low-performing schools -- the ones that need more than just tinkering around the edges.

That's why it is troubling that instead of fixing our lowest-performing schools, policymakers are diverting their attention toward discussing the need to raise standards to international levels. Do a significant number of states need to raise the bar? Yes, and I am hopeful that this rhetoric will lead to better, clearer, higher expectations for every student. I'm also for more sophisticated ways of measuring achievement and rewarding teachers who do the hardest work and get results. But we must not let up on an accountability approach that is showing results. As we focus on raising the bar, we must work urgently to turn around the schools that don't even meet minimal standards.

In the coming months, we will hear discussions about postponing grade-level achievement for all students by 2014. We will hear calls for more resources beyond the $100 billion in education funding in the federal stimulus package. We will hear that America cannot make further improvements in education until we spend more on the social safety net. We will hear lots of talk that, when boiled down, amounts to retreat from meaningful accountability and would delay requirements that our kids perform on grade level. Turning our attention away from the problem at hand will only slow down or stop the gains we are seeing across the country. Our children deserve better than that.

The writer was U.S. secretary of education from 2005 to 2009.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company