Congress must resist tampering with a 2001 education law that's forcing schools to teach the basics.
Congress begins debate this week on renewal of a 2001 education law that has led many more children to read and do math at their grade level. That gold-star success of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) argues for keeping the law's mandate for state testing largely intact. The question before Congress: What kind of testing?
A draft bill in the House contains proposed changes that reflect the complaints of many teachers and parents that the law's narrow testing only on math and reading has pushed schools to shortchange the curriculum in other areas, such as history and the arts.
Other critics of the law cite the mechanical nature of testing often used – machine-scored, multiple-choice questions during long exams – as unsuitable for many students. NCLB is also seen as too limiting to inspire the kind of high-quality thinking needed for 21st-century jobs or for lifelong learning.
And in a perverse example of the law of unintended consequences, many schools – eager to retain high-scoring students and show yearly progress as required – are all too willing to see a rise in dropout rates among low-performing students.
As a result, the House bill's proposed changes would broaden the types of assessments to include science projects, writing samples, and collections of student work. While some states have tried these added criteria, it's still unclear whether they provide a clear picture of progress.
The big problem with this more complex system of assessment is that parents and taxpayers would find it far more difficult to see a school's success or failure as a teaching institution.