National Test Is Key to Bush Education Reform Proposal

Published May 1, 2001

Ronald Reagan’s famous watchwords for arms control were, “Trust but verify.” George W. Bush’s equivalent for reform of federal education spending could be, “Trust but test.”

President Bush proposes to use the 32-year-old National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes called the “nation’s report card,” to confirm any gains states report on their own reading and math tests–tests they would have to administer annually in grades three through eight if they wanted to continue receiving federal Title I aid.

Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act has funneled $130 billion-plus into the nation’s schools since 1965 for the express purpose of closing the achievement gap for poor and minority children. It hasn’t worked. The gap actually widened during the 1990s despite vaunted federal programs like Goals 2000. Americans have NAEP to thank for exposing that ugly truth.

Three Paths Available

The failure of nearly four decades of federal spending leaves policymakers three choices:

  • One: Keep spending the billions in the same prescriptive but non-productive way;
  • Two: Close down the federal Education Department and leave all education tax-and-policy decisions with the states; or
  • Three: Reform the delivery of the federal government’s 7 percent share of K-12 funding.

Option One is plainly bankrupt. Option Two was alive with the start of the Reagan administration and with the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, but died for lack of political will or popular support. That leaves only Option Three, which President Bush has chosen.

In place of a system filled with rules but devoid of accountability, Bush’s proposal would give states flexibility in how they spend Title I money, but would demand results in return. If state tests confirmed by NAEP expose a school as a chronic failure after all sorts of extra help, Bush would haul out the hickory stick of accountability: parental choice.

The Importance of Choice

Parents whose child was stuck in a school still failing after three years would be able to take their child’s share of Title I aid, up to $1,500, and use it to send the child to a higher-performing public or private school, or to employ a provider of supplementary educational services, such as a tutor.

Foes call that dollop of empowerment for the disadvantaged a voucher . . . but Mom or Dad might call it a lifeline if it put their child in the classroom of a better teacher.

An elevated status for NAEP, which is guided by a nonpartisan National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), could advance school choice in other ways. By providing snapshots over time of how much knowledge students grasp at grades 4, 8, and 12, NAEP has become a valuable source of information for school reformers. It enables them to see through spurious claims of progress by the education establishment.

For instance, it was NAEP that exposed California’s fall to last place in fourth-grade reading after the state’s education department had scrapped phonics. That led California, in 1994, to ditch the discredited “whole language” approach to teaching reading.

Details, Details, Details

As debate over ESEA reauthorization made education reform a top priority on Capitol Hill, details of how the Bush plan would be implemented remained to be sorted out. How much flexibility, for example, might Washington reasonably give states to use or select their own tests without losing a basis for comparing results? Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan, probably described as well as anyone the fine line that must be walked.

“States need the flexibility to develop their own accountability systems, but these systems shouldn’t be so different that the results they produce can’t be compared to one another,” she told a House subcommittee on education reform.

“An accountability system that doesn’t allow us to both track progress inside our borders and compare ourselves to those outside our borders isn’t a good system at all.”

Keegan cautioned lawmakers “to be careful when developing federal policy not to overly prescribe the mechanism that is to be used for tracking progress and assessing student achievement.”

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].