Thursday, July 27, 2006

NCLB Revisited

Conservatives are squabbling over the value of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education policy, which has been part of public education nationally for four years now.

On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page published this article by American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray. (I wrote here about Murray’s plan to revamp the entire social welfare state, which I said was “wildly unfeasible politically.”)

In his article, Murray asserts that the main data being collected pursuant to NCLB is “beyond uninformative.” He notes that NCLB mandates collection of only pass percentages. He argues that this measure is easily manipulated and is insufficient to determine whether proficiency has been achieved. He suggests that additional information, including actual test scores collated by demographic groups, as well as actual testing methodologies could render useful data.

But Murray’s gripes with NCLB don’t stop at statistical sampling methods. He carps that NCLB is “a disaster for federalism …, holds good students hostage to the performance of the least talented,” and has had “dismaying effects on the content of classroom instruction and devastating effects on teacher morale.” I personally know teachers that would be inclined to agree on at least some level with Murray’s complaints.

But Manhattan Institute fellow Jay P. Greene and his colleague, senior research associate Marcus A. Winters strongly disagree with Murray in this National Review article. Right out of the chute, hwoever, Green and Winters misconstrue Murray’s arguments. They seem to suggest that Murray is against benchmark measurement of any kind. It is possible to arrive at that conclusion if you stop reading at Murray’s sixth paragraph, but that is not the gist of his contention.

Green and Winters take on Murray’s arguments about “teaching to the test,” saying that “these criticisms would only be valid if “teaching to the test” meant that students weren’t also learning how to read and add. Reducing teacher autonomy by requiring students to learn tested material is only worrisome if it doesn’t also produce real learning.”

Indeed, they argue that their empirical studies show that the “teaching to the test” mantra is a red herring, although, there is little discussion about how teacher morale eventually impacts student performance. Besides, they note that “the goal of our education system is student learning, not teacher autonomy. And qualified teachers have little to fear from tests that accurately measure effective teaching.”

But Murray’s main argument is that NCLB is not measuring effective teaching. Then Green and Winters turn right around and agree with Murray, saying “that focusing on the percent of students reaching an arbitrarily chosen benchmark we call “proficient” instead of raw scores is imprecise and can lead to misleading results …” But they argue that the NCLB should be fixed, not shelved. After rereading Murray’s article, I’m not sure that he is calling for the system to be scrapped, although, he never fully clarifies what he thinks should happen.

In defense of standardized testing, with which Murray seems to have some problems as noted above, Green and Winters argue that “there is actually significant evidence that accountability systems in general have improved student performance.” But they admit that “there is little research on the effects of NCLB in particular.”

Green and Winters conclude, “Research suggests that high-stakes testing can improve real student proficiency. We should not go back to the days when we had no tools for measuring and holding schools accountable for teaching students even the most basic skills.”

The trouble is that I’m not sure Murray would disagree with them. It seems that Green and Winters have created a straw man—an effigy of Murray—to tear apart. Murray’s criticism seems to call for better measurements, although, Murray seems to dislike NCLB on a more basic level. It violates principles of federalism, which subscribes to the understanding that government works best when applied at the lowest possible level where the issue can be properly handled. Green and Winter do not address this concern at all. And while they make a valiant case for standardized testing, they make a very weak case for NCLB.

Moreover, Green and Winter totally disregard Murray’s contention NCLB’s testing methodology dumbs down the brightest students and forces all students (top and bottom) toward average. While they are quick to cite empirical data showing that standardized testing improves overall scores and improves the scores of the lowest performers, they are completely mum on its effects on the top students. Does it hold them down? I would appreciate seeing some empirical evidence that addresses this concern.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that since Murray’s main contention (that NCLB’s measurements are inadequate) is admitted, NCLB by itself cannot be assumed to provide the same value as the standardized testing methods for which Green and Winters tout successes. Nor do we know how standardized testing impacts the brightest students. As to whether NCLB should be fixed or else scrapped because it reduces local control of education and expands yet another Washington bureaucracy; that is another question entirely, which Murray’s critics do a poor job of addressing.

It seems clear that we shouldn’t do NCLB at all unless we are going to use valid measurements. But before throwing more money at it, we should find out how standardized testing impacts our brightest students and explore whether this whole thing might be better handled at a lower level of government. Experience dictates that federal agencies are optimal for only a handful of matters. Primary and secondary education likely aren’t among those matters.

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