Matt Yglesias worries about the potential for pseudostandards (the lowering of standards) as a result of leeway under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). He’s right to worry though NYT’s Michael Winerip is not the most reliable source of information on this issue. Nonetheless, downward pressure from NCLB is a potential problem and a hard to detect one because states can use obvious and less visible ways to lessen the rigor of their tests since they get to chose the assessments (within some broad parameters) and decide on the definition of proficiency. Unclear, however, just how much of this has actually happened and how much is hysterical NCLB mythology.
Unfortunately, the compromise that lands us here was no accident. The solutions all raise their own issues, and did in 2001. For instance, the obvious remedy is national standards and a national test. Yet, desirability aside, nobody seems to have a good idea of how to build the political coalition necessary to support that or a convincing argument about why the outcome would be any different than when Bush I and Clinton went down that road and liberals and conservatives found something they could all agree on.
[For what it’s worth, Eduwonk’s theory is that the best way to build national consensus is through governors working together and a bottom-up, consortia approach. This would over time save money, improve the quality of tests, and defuse the politics. There are fledgling steps in this direction now but there should be money in NCLB to create incentives for such projects. Sadly, the Bush Administration will not touch anything that smacks of national testing because it drives the conservatives nuts.]
Another idea is to use the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as an actual yardstick with consequences. However, it’s generally agreed this would corrupt the NAEP’s validity as an independent gauge of trends over time or as CGCS’ Mike Casserly once quipped, why sully the almost only unsullied thing in education? In addition, there is serious disagreement about NAEP’s standards, an issue that would have to be addressed if NAEP were to be used in this way. And, though NAEP has a curricular framework, is it the one we want for a national curriculum? In other words, is teaching to the NAEP desirable?
In the meantime, it’s going to be public analyses of the relative rigor of state standards such as this one from Paul Peterson and I’m Rick Hess Bi*ch or a forthcoming one from S & P’s Schoolmatters.com along with NAEP itself that help inform this conversation. And, it’s up to advocacy groups and activists in the states to keep an eye on things and hold the line on rigor.