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Manhattan Institute

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Push Forward Schools, Leave Behind Skeptics


Push Forward Schools, Leave Behind Skeptics

November 21, 2004
EducationPre K-12

President George W. Bush announced this month that he will push to extend the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act into high schools. While the guardians of the status quo are howling that the sky will fall, the evidence gives us good reason to think educational standards help rather than hurt.

Currently, the law requires states to set achievement standards on basic-skills tests for grades three through eight, and hold schools accountable for reaching them. In the three years since the No Child Left Behind Act became law, public school officials have not been shy about vilifying it and denouncing its effects. It’s no wonder. After decades of cruising along with no accountability for their job performance, many school officials have come to feel that they are professionally entitled to run our schools however they want, regardless of whether kids are actually learning.

Now, with No Child Left Behind, they’re actually expected to show results.

One of the arguments against extending standards to high school is that it will raise the dropout rate. Some school officials claim that more kids would drop out of high school because requiring schools to teach students basic skills would make it harder to graduate.

It’s true that America’s public schools have a major dropout crisis. Contrary to what most people think, only about 70 percent of high school students graduate. And it does seem plausible that implementing standards would make high school more difficult and cause more kids to drop out.

But the empirical research on this question consistently shows that accountability exams in high schools don’t increase the dropout rate. Dropouts tend to be academically low-performing students, so the children who can’t pass the test are mostly the same ones who would have dropped out anyway. And accountability standards force schools to work harder at teaching basic skills, causing some students who would otherwise have dropped out to stay in school because now they’re actually learning something.

Another argument we hear from school officials is that accountability tests don’t promote real learning; they only promote test manipulation. Teachers allegedly “teach to the test” in ways that produce higher scores without conveying knowledge and skills.

To see whether this is the case, I recently performed a nationwide study comparing the results schools got on accountability tests with the same schools’ results on widely respected tests that aren’t used for accountability purposes. These other tests are nationally recognized as genuine measurements of student learning, but they aren’t used for accountability purposes. I found that schools’ results on the two types of tests were highly correlated, indicating that accountability tests do measure real learning and are not distorted by test manipulation.

We also hear from officials at comfortable suburban schools that accountability puts an unnecessary burden on them. Our students are mastering basic skills just fine, they say, complaining that a testing regime would force them to spend less time on science, art, and other things they prefer in order to spend more time on basic skills.

This one sounds fishy from the start. If these schools’ students are really mastering basic skills so well, why would the schools have to change their curricula in order to produce passing grades? Why would accountability for student achievement be such a burden on them if their students are achieving so well?

What’s going on here is that No Child Left Behind doesn’t just require schools to show results for their student bodies as a whole. That would allow suburban schools to coast by on the high performance of their majority population of comfortable white students. Schools wouldn’t need to worry about educating their more disadvantaged students.

No Child Left Behind breaks down student achievement by group, including race and income groups. It holds schools accountable for providing an adequate basic-skills education to all these groups. That’s why it’s called “No Child Left Behind.” And it’s one of the reasons so many school officials hate the law so much - now they don’t just have to teach the children who are easy to teach, they also have to show progress with the disadvantaged students who face greater challenges.

The original purpose of the law was to address the yawning gap between the test scores of middle-class white students and those of students who are low-income and minority. This gap has been tolerated for decades. The passage of No Child Left Behind was a national decision that it isn’t sufficient for comfortable white kids to be doing well in school while other groups get only scraps from the educational table.

Schools have always had plenty of excuses for why they shouldn’t be held accountable for their performance. The president has announced that he will continue his efforts to bring the era of excuses to an end. That goal deserves our support.