The central fallacy of the Republicans’ No Child Left Behind Act is that the math doesn’t add up: there is no way that “all” students can perform at grade level in math and reading by 2014, any more than it would make sense to require that “all” students be of at least average height for their age by 2014.
The literal mathematical impossibility of the NCLB goals of course will cause school districts to lie to meet these goals, and indeed the inevitable cooking of figures has now begun in earnest:
With the federal government’s permission, schools aren’t counting the test scores of nearly 2 million students when they report progress by racial groups, an Associated Press computer analysis found.
Minorities — who historically haven’t fared as well as whites in testing — make up the vast majority of students whose scores are being excluded, the AP found. And the numbers have been rising. …
Schools receiving federal aid also must demonstrate annually that students in all racial categories are progressing or risk penalties that include extending the school year, changing curriculum or firing administrators and teachers.
The U.S. Education Department said it didn’t know the breadth of schools’ deliberate undercounting until seeing AP’s findings.
“Is it too many? You bet,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in an interview. “Are there things we need to do to look at that, batten down the hatches, make sure those kids are part of the system? You bet.”
There are many human tragedies that will be caused by NCLB, including the hiding of non-white children in statistical attics such as the Associated Press discovered. But in addition to the personal tragedies, one little-noticed but important blow against good government that the Act is causing is the institutionalization of lying by local schools and governments in order to appear to be on track to meet the ridiculous and unattainable goal of universal proficiency. This will inject a feeling of cynicism and hopelessness and shame about the government at the lowest and in many ways the most important and largest level of government: the local, often volunteer-run, town and school governments.
It is shameful that the Republicans are forcing local volunteers and officials to conceal and mislead in this way; these people signed on to help their communities, not to lie to the public and the federal government. I certainly understand that misleading and concealment is a central tenet of the governing philosophy of the president and the congressional Republicans who crafted this bill, and that for this reason most of them gave no second thoughts to this aspect of the system they created. I also understand that a perceptive drown-government-in-the-bathtub minority precisely understood the corrosive effect NCLB would have on local government and school boards, but regarded this as a plus, not a minus. But just because the Republicans in Washington either don’t understand or don’t agree that it is not a good idea to turn local government officials into liars doesn’t make it right.
This of course is not, as our misleaders would have it, a choice between testing and not testing our children (and our school systems). The problem is that the benchmarks are dishonest and calculated to destroy, not repair, the public education system in the United States.
The Democrats need to stand up on this issue, and point out that passing a law saying that all children will be above average in math and reading by 2014 won’t make it so. We need a law that helps children who are below average, not a law that makes it illegal for children to be below average.