Outside editorial: Public wants one reliable assessment for education

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2007

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings might think things are all hunky-dory with the No Child Left Behind education reform act. But the public isn't buying it. A new poll shows that a majority of Americans want this key change: a single national assessment tool, rather than the mishmash of state tests that allows widely differing standards of student performance.

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The public has finally caught on to the big flaw in the federal testing initiative. By letting every state design and use its own assessment tool and standards to evaluate performance, states have gamed the system. Some set low bars for performance and claim great progress. Others set high bars, and students struggle to meet them. The result: The federal report of progress doesn't accurately reflect whether students are performing up to par.

That's been illuminated in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. NAEP is known as the nation's report card, because it provides a reliable way to assess student progress across the U.S. But although states reported 68 percent of fourth graders last year were proficient in reading under state tests, only 31 percent were proficient using the NAEP assessment.

Secretary Spellings isn't sold on the idea of one national standard. Earlier this year, she danced around it, saying, "We've got to find the right balance on bringing the system forward without creating a system that is so impossible, so undoable. If we think we have a lot of schools that need improvement with state standards, wait until we slap NAEP standards on states." Sounds as if the federal government's idea of "leaving no child behind" has an asterisk beside it: unless it's too hard, or states won't like it.

The 1,500-plus who were polled for the recent Educational Testing Services survey had a different view: Fifty-nine percent said one reliable national assessment should be used - but not to punish or label underperforming schools as it is today. It should be used to identify problems. Then resources should be provided to help struggling students meet higher standards.

We agree with the public.

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