A new international literacy test was released this week. The news is not good.
Last year's U.S. fourth-graders (the test was administered in 2006) scored about the same as their counterparts did in 2001, but they lost ground to the rest of the world. In '01, American kids finished fourth. Last year, they came in 11th, left in the dust by kids in Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Hungary, among others.
What happened? It's hard to say, other than a lot of other nations looked at their scores from the last test and figured out how to improve. As Bloomberg News described it, Hong Kong and Singapore revised the curricula they use for reading. Russia decided kids should begin school a year earlier.
We got a federal law called No Child Left Behind.
Perhaps the theory was that children left behind academically feel lonely, so we'd better make sure everyone stays behind.
By now, some of you may think this is a column on vouchers or tuition tax credits, the thing some lawmakers are hinting at for the 2008 legislative session. Fooled you.
Utahns have endured enough empty emotional rhetoric for one year. The vouchers debate produced a lot of heat but little light from either side. Normally civilized people became so emotional they might as well have been walking around inside their own cones of silence.
No, it's time for all to come together and examine what can be done to improve a sagging educational record nationwide, a record that ought to alarm everyone.
The first move should be obvious. Ditch No Child Left Behind in the trash heap of history. It hasn't worked precisely because it was a political solution - a mandate from Washington that immediately sent everyone scurrying to find loopholes. Republicans, who normally want the federal government to stay out of public education, wanted to give states a lot of latitude in terms of setting standards. Democrats, who typically are fine with federal intervention and support teachers unions, worried about a law that could be especially harsh on schools with large minority populations. What we ended up with was meaningless mush.
Worse than that, we got something easily manipulated by states. For example, Stateline.org recently wrote about a report by a nonpartisan think tank that tried to cut through the thick muck that surrounds how states measure their educational progress. The results are alarming.
Alabama, for instance, went from 22nd to fifth in the nation in one year in terms of how it met the No Child law's requirements. In one year, the percentage of Alabama schools meeting adequate yearly progress went from just over half to almost 90 percent. But the report said Alabama students really hadn't learned more at all. The state just lowered its standards. Alabama still has one of the nation's worst high school graduation rates, and it does poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.
It isn't alone. A recent editorial in the Daily Jefferson County Union in Wisconsin wondered how the Dairy State's own tests could show 81 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading and 77 percent in math, when the national assessment test showed 35 percent are proficient in reading and 47 percent in math. There were similar disparities in eighth-grade results.
"From where we sit," the editorial said, "giving tests with low standards not only misleads parents and taxpayers on the effectiveness of our educational system but also gets in the way of helping students be all that they can be."
I'd go a step further. It's cheating them. Comparisons between states mean nothing when everyone defines standards differently. Besides, the real tests ought to measure our kids against the world. That's the arena in which our children will compete for jobs and careers.
We need to get serious about school reforms. But we can't do it through idiotic federal mandates. True education reform will be painful, but it can't happen until Congress junks No Child Left Behind.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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