• from the Florida Times-Union - Left Behind by Federal Plan

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Left Behind by Federal Plan

May 27, 2006

By William L. Bainbridge

There is an upside to the neo-conservative implementation of the federal " No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) act and the increasing use of standardized tests to assess schools and students. The law, which signals unwarranted federal intervention in the evaluation of community schools, have caused parents, homebuyers and community leaders to become more sophisticated than ever about the educational data by which the federal government measures student progress.

Pacing the current Administration's effort to federalize elementary and secondary education was the so-called success of the " Houston Miracle."

The President's first Secretary of Education, Roderick Paige politically maneuvered himself from school board member to Superintendent of the massive Houston Independent School District (1994 to 2000), while the President was Governor of Texas. In his final year in that office Paige reported an incredibly low student dropout rate of 1.5%. The rate was significantly better than any urban school system in America, and groups such as the Broad Foundation stood in line to present Paige with awards when he was named as Secretary.

The reality however, is that during Paige's tenure, student performance data was seriously overstated because performance reports failed to take into account the thousands of students who dropped out and never returned. Due to the controversy surrounding NCLB, the public learned from the media the Houston ISD dropout rates weren't accurate. The low 1.5% rate was actually over 50%. Artificially inflated test scores that were reported actually reflected only the performance of the upper half of the population of children eligible to be served by the school system.

The public later learned the administration paid commentator Armstrong Williams $241,000 to help promote NCLB on the air, an arrangement that Williams acknowledged involved "bad judgment" on his part. The U.S. Government Accounting Office labeled the payments "covert propaganda." Meanwhile Paige was continuing his bad judgment by alienating potential supporters in school systems as he publicly called teachers' union representatives " terrorists."

At the start of his second term, President GWB replaced Paige as Secretary of Education with Margaret Spellings. She may be the least academically qualified cabinet member in modern history, with a bachelor's degree in political science and no substantive education in statistical research or school leadership. She formerly worked as a political/education consultant to the then Texas Governor and as a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards. The first and only organization she has led as CEO is the massive U.S. Department of Education.

Controversy continues under Secretary Spellings' leadership. The public recently heard Secretary Spellings call Connecticut education officials " un-American" when they suggested testing students every other year instead of every year. Additionally, newspaper readers are frequently learning about reporting errors and shifts in methodology for reporting data required by NCLB. As these baselines for measuring student performance fluctuate, it is no wonder educators are struggling to implement the dramatic, resource-draining and extremely complex mandates of these new federal education policies.

Advocates of local control are keenly sensitive to the radical way NCLB has altered the role of state and federal governments. It is ironic that a so-called Republican administration, inheritor of the traditions of minimizing federal intervention, has imposed unprecedented federal control on accountability for local school test score results. Parents are now beginning to understand NCLB has provided no common student performance measures that cross all state lines.

In all of the confusion about educational data being reported, Gerald W. Bracey, one of the most articulate critics of both NCLB and the misuse of school data, has done much to help the public understand the facts. Parents and community leaders interested in school reform should be aware of the work of this extraordinary watchdog of the public interest. Bracey holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford, and has worked for Educational Testing Service as well as several universities. As an independent thinker and educational researcher who specializes in educational assessment and policy analysis, Bracey created the Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency website (www.america-tomorrow.com/bracey). The site is a great source for understanding the hypocrisy of many of the charlatans and self serving profiteers masquerading as education reformers. Each year Bracey posts his eye-opening "Rotten Apples in Education Awards," on the EDDRA site.

Bracey also pens a monthly column in the Phi Delta Kappan education journal, is a well-known writer and speaker, and has been revealing statistical manipulation for years. Bracey's recent, and perhaps best book, Reading Educational Research Between the Lines: How Not to Get Statistically Snookered, (available at heinemann.com) should be in the hands of all persons interested in school reform. His clear writing and humor actually make the process of understanding educational statistics an easy read for most lay people. The book is a powerful tool for those who want to better understand the pitfalls of believing politicians who claim to be armed with "school data" in order to push partisan agendas.

These emerging efforts to help the public truly understand the dangers of statistical manipulation in compiling student performance indicators are truly one of the few unanticipated upsides of the NCLB act.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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