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Critics Miss Benefits of 'No Child Left Behind'

The deadline is looming for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the law that says states getting federal education subsidies must give standardized tests and make regular progress toward 100% student proficiency in 2014. Naturally, there's a fierce debate going on about whether the law should be extended.

The official justification -- that NCLB would make 100% of students proficient -- doesn't pass the laugh test. But the arguments that it harms education, though they seem much more plausible, are also misplaced. And a federal mandate for testing produces important benefits that are well worth the costs.

We were never going to get 100% of kids to pass any kind of test, but that's the line that's been used to sell NCLB. States must set goals for the percentage of students who will pass the test in each year, with the goals increasing up to 100% in 2014. Any school with a demographic subgroup of students that remains below the targeted pass rate for multiple years is subject to sanctions.

If you have any experience with politics, you've already guessed what the states' multi-year improvement plans look like. They anticipate slow gains over the first eight to ten years, then a huge explosion in student proficiency in the last few years.

This is, of course, an old political game. You do what you really want to do right away, and in order to sell it to the public, you make impossible promises whose fulfillment is postponed until later.

Nonetheless, I've been amazed at how the NCLB coalition has stuck rigidly to the 100% proficiency message. I had expected that by now, they would be preparing the ground for the inevitable clawback. But no -- in Washington it's still all systems go for 100% proficiency in 2014, powered by the magical explosion of learning scheduled to occur starting in about 2011.

But if the official case for NCLB is bogus, it doesn't follow that NCLB has been a bad thing. The arguments that it harms education, while they aren't quite as insulting to the intelligence, don't stand up to scrutiny.

People complain that the school sanctions are severe. But only a few schools are even hypothetically subject to serious sanctions, and those that are can take advantage of huge loopholes.

People complain that implementing the law's testing requirement is expensive. But it isn't. And anyway, NCLB showers schools with huge new subsidies -- that's the only reason it passed.

People complain that the mandate produces teaching to the test. But that's another way of saying it makes sure schools teach what they're supposed to. Research shows that accountability tests measure real knowledge, not just test-taking skills.

People complain that testing basic skills cuts into other subjects. There's not much evidence that's actually happening, but even if it is, it would only be because schools need more time to teach basic skills right. And if kids can't read, how are they going to learn other subjects?

People complain that NCLB violates federalism. But states can get out of NCLB by simply refusing federal subsidies.

NCLB's more cogent critics complain that it creates incentives to dumb down the proficiency standard until everyone is "proficient." But that happens anyway. State standards have always been vulnerable to downward pressure; NCLB changes little in this regard. There's no evidence that dumbing down is occurring more frequently now than it always has.

When you set aside all the implausible multi-year plans, toothless sanctions, easily evaded school choice requirements, and other window dressing, NCLB boils down to one simple commercial transaction: the system got a big cash payoff, in exchange for which it agreed to give standardized tests and release up-to-date information on how students are performing.

Before NCLB, many states didn't give standardized tests at all, or didn't release the results in a timely and publicly useable format. Now they all do. And all 50 states now participate in the Nation's Report Card, a single national test of a representative sample of students, which allows researchers to conduct cross-state comparisons.

This transparency represents an incredible boon. The amount of empirical research done on education has been growing at a breathtaking rate. Before NCLB, education was a fringe element at best in economics, political science, and other social science disciplines. Now it's everywhere. A lot of that research is due to the data made available by NCLB.

Our knowledge of what works and what doesn't in education, and how best to measure it, is finally starting to grow after a century of dead ends and wrong turns. For example, it's now common knowledge in the education field that what counts isn't achievement levels, but year-to-year growth in achievement. How many people grasped that ten years ago?

This explosive increase in accurate information can only be good for the public -- and for the cause of real reform, since defenders of the status quo rely primarily on myths and innuendo.

Sure, some states may tamper with the definition of "proficient." But the raw scale scores are publicly available, and independent researchers can, and do, use these scores to perform legitimate analyses to inform the public of how students are doing.

Even the demographic data collected for NCLB are valuable. In my last study, which showed that competition from school vouchers improves education in failing public schools, I used demographic data from NCLB reports because they were the only up-to-date source that had all the data I needed.

What the issue really boils down to is whether we're going to know anything about education outcomes or not. Regardless of whether NCLB is reauthorized or not, some mandate for standardized testing as the price of getting federal subsidies is indispensable. If the feds are going to subsidize education -- and it seems that no force on earth can stop them - they might as well demand transparency in return.

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.