Great Test-pectations

Much of this week’s education attention has been focused on the CEP’s findings that No Child Left Behind is indeed effective.  Though many have gone out of their way to mitigate the findings, offer up alternative explanations, discount the impact, or generally change the fact, one thing is certain.  NCLB does work.  In those states where CEP found student achievement gains, there is only one common denominator — all of those states have made NCLB-based reforms.  NCLB may not be the only reason for the successes, but it is undoubtedly a major driver behind the improvement.

More interesting, though, was Ledge King’s piece (with an assist from Greg Toppo) in USA Today, looking at the broad discrepancies of testing benchmarks across the states. 

At the very heart of NCLB was the commitment that every American student deserved the opportunity to succeed.  That was how the law was marketed.  Regardless of race or income or neighborhood, every student is afforded the opportunity to learn, to achieve, and to succeed, both in and beyond their K-12 experience.

But in the Gannett analysis, King finds that such an opportunity is still a goal, and not necessarily a reality.  The beauty of federal education reform is that measures of achievement and success are expected to be uniform.  Instead, as King reports, we see that reading achievement in Mississippi versus achievement in Massachusetts couldn’t be more different.  And those differences are going to be even more acute when it matters — in postsecondary education and in the workplace.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.  Even for those in the know, NCLB is perceived as an elementary school law.  With its focus on elementary school reading and middle school assessments, it is seen as far more Click, Clack, Moo than The Sun Also Rises.  An unfair focus, sure, but public perception is the new reality.

The thousand-dollar question is how do we take what we know from CEP and others and use it to address the problems that King has identified.  The answer is an easy one.  It may not be one that Secretary Spellings is particularly fond of, but the single greatest way to truly level the playing field and fulfill NCLB’s mission of providing all students an opportunity for success is found in two simple words — national standards.

At the end of the day, student proficiency is student proficiency.  Achievement should not have a geographic accent.  It shouldn’t be mitigated by per-pupil spending ratios.  It shouldn’t be defined by the lowest common denominator.  And it surely shouldn’t be disaggregated away.  Achievement is achievement.  Success is success.  It doesn’t matter if it the MCAS, the SOL, NAEP, or any other single assessment tool.  Student proficiency needs to be a common, universal measure.  It is the only way we can ensure every American student is reading at a proficient level in the fourth grade, prepared for the rigors of our changing high schools, and ready for the opportunities available in either postsecondary education or career.  If education is the great equalizer, its measures of that education need to be equal.

That’s how one effectively sells national standards to the teachers and parents who are skeptical of the federal government’s ability to effectively implement and manage meaningful education reforms.  We don’t want to hear about statistical analyses, variations, and experimental models.  We want to know that if our kid is deemed proficient in reading, that means he is able to read at the same level as an average fourth grader in Oregon, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Mississippi.  When she gets a B in Algebra II, we expect that a B in our school equals a B in LAUSD, Chicago, Dallas ISD, or DC Public Schools.  We might not say it, but we assume our children meet a common standard when their academic abilities are assessed.  And we depend on it, believing those assessments mean our children are able to keep up with any student in college or compete with any graduate for a job.

So how do we talk about it?  At the end of the day, national standards are borne out of national policy.  NCLB is that policy.  Thanks to CEP, EdTrust, and a number of other education organizations, we have our messaging.  It works.  NCLB works.  National education reform works.  Reading First works.  Scientifically based education works.  Results-based teacher training and instruction works. 

It works because it is effective.  It works because it generates results.  It works because it established a national standard for teaching and learning.  And we can now see it working in states, districts, schools, and classrooms just like those in our neighborhood.  No getting around it — NCLB works.

And that’s the marketing slogan.  That’s the soundbite.  That’s the bumper sticker.  NCLB works.  Data proves it.  Teachers and administrators and parents and students have embraced it.  Curriculum and professional development has been built around it.  Critics have tried to tear it down for five years, to little avail.  And you know what, NCLB still works.

The general communications mantra is to keep it simple, and it just doesn’t get any simpler than that.  The law is effective, and there is the data and the emotional connection in classrooms around the country to prove it.  Now ED just needs an effective messenger to deliver it.  How hard can that be?    

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