A BIPARTISAN senate bill to revise No Child Left Behind preserves annual testing of students as well as the requirement that test scores, broken down by race, income and special needs, be made public. We are glad to see recognition of how critical these much-maligned measures have been in improving student achievement since the law took effect 13 years ago. But as important as it is for the public to know how students are doing, it’s also urgent that schools be required to respond when students are failing. The bill is deficient on this score. As it advances in the Senate, its measures on accountability need to be strengthened.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), leaders of the Senate Education Committee, unveiled Tuesday a compromise that offers the best chance for a long-overdue rewrite of the law. No Child Left Behind, a landmark achievement of former president George W. Bush and Democrats including the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), opened an era in which schools could no longer hide their failure to teach minority or economically disadvantaged students. But the law had problems: unrealistic goals, onerous punishments and overly prescriptive remedies. Congress has been fighting about how to update the law since its reauthorization came due in 2007, so Mr. Alexander and Ms. Murray deserve much credit for working across the aisle.
And there’s much to like in their bill. It insists that states set academic improvement goals for all students — including those of color, English-language learners and those with disabilities — and that progress for students be included in how schools are rated. It continues to target federal dollars to schools serving the highest concentrations of low-income students. Every student in third through eighth grades would still take math and reading tests. The public reporting of data, which has powerfully illuminated achievement gaps, would be strengthened with new transparency about school spending and disciplinary practices.
But the bill goes too far in rolling back the federal role in setting standards and consequences. States should have more flexibility, but there has to be some insistence on rigor in academic standards, how (or even whether) teachers are evaluated and measurements to gauge school performance. The bill sets no expectations for states to intervene with schools that consistently have poor results.
No doubt some states don’t need prods from Washington, but others have catered more to education bureaucracies or teachers unions than to students. The federal government does not have to prescribe the medicine, but it should not allow failing schools to go untreated.