The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is making the problem of cheating and low academic standards in public schools even worse. Under this Act, the Department of Education now requires students to pass standardized tests. Failing schools will lose federal funding and other perks if their students consistently turn in a bad performance on these tests.
Holding schools and teachers accountable, and expecting students to demonstrate what they’ve learned, sounds like a good idea. But this Act means that badly-taught students, victims of dumbed-down texts and bad teaching methods like new math and whole-language instruction, now have to pass difficult standardized tests they are not ready for.
As a result, millions of students may fail these tests, not because they are dumb, but because the schools never taught them to read properly or solve a math problem without a calculator. Millions of high school students with low reading and math skills now risk not graduating from high school until they pass these tests.
It is important that parents know the unvarnished truth about their children’s real academic abilities, but many parents are now frantic because they see their children’s failing grades on these new tests. As a result, they complain to school boards that they do not want their children taking these tests or not graduating from high school because of low test scores. To protect their children, many parents are now demanding dumbed-down tests to make sure that their kids graduate from high school and go to college.
The No Child Left Behind Act is now forcing many parents to condone schools that dumb-down their tests and standards, instead of blaming these schools for their children’s failure to learn. This is a typical unintended consequence of more government laws that try to fix problems that a government-controlled school system created in the first place.
State lawmakers in New York, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and other states have yielded to parent pressure. They have scrapped or watered-down high-stakes graduation tests that proved too tough even for students in the so-called better schools in the suburbs.
In Wisconsin, state legislators backed off plans to require high school graduation tests because of strong opposition by parents from affluent suburbs. One parent group calling itself “Advocates for Education” argued that high-stakes testing would not be fair to children and would hurt educational quality in the schools.
Critics of the graduation tests were worried that the tests would put too much pressure on the children. Suburban parents lobbied parent-teacher organizations, and state legislators eventually scrapped the graduation test before a single high-school student had taken it.
Similarly, New York and Massachusetts officials yielded to pressure by parents to set low passing grades for their new graduation tests. In Virginia and Arizona, state boards of education have backed away from graduation tests that were too tough for even the so-called better schools. Only 7 percent of schools in Virginia met new achievement standards, and 9 out of 10 sophomores in Arizona schools failed a new math test.
In New York City, school authorities estimated that over 30 percent of the city’s 11th-graders would not be eligible to graduate if the English language standard that will take effect next year was being applied today. Diane Ravitch of the Brookings Institute in Washington is a longtime analyst of New York’s public-school system She estimated that in some neighborhoods, less than 5 percent of high-school seniors would qualify to graduate under the new standards.
Parents, particularly those with younger children, should take heed. You don’t want to end up with high-school kids who may not graduate because they can’t pass the new tests. In Chapters 8, 9, and the Resource section of "Public Schools, Public Menace," I explore how you can circumvent these serious problems by finding real education alternatives outside the public schools.