Editor's note: This post is the second entry of a three-part series on Race to the Top's legacy and the federal role in education. You can read the first entry here and the final entry here.

The super-talented Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff to Secretary Duncan, has convinced me in two recent articles that Race to the Top (RTTT) was a skillfully administered program. Weiss and her colleagues cannily handled public transparency, technical assistance to applicants, and intra-department coordination. They deserve credit for the how of RTTT.

But the articles don’t directly address whether the federal government should’ve undertaken RTTT. Obviously, the administration would say yes. But why? The articles imply an answer, one consistent with progressive ideology and the administration’s approach to health care, environmental regulation, and much more: Expert central administrators can and should solve complex social problems, and the federal government is the logical perch from which to do so.

In Education NextWeiss is transparent about the federal government’s ambitions. “Race to the Top aimed to drive systems-level change,” she acknowledges. The administration wanted “comprehensive and coherent” state agendas aligned with the administration’s preferences on standards, tests, teacher evaluations, and more. RTTT didn’t aspire to influence “discrete silos”; it wanted...

New York is leaving too many gifted children behind. Scads of K–3 students in low-income neighborhoods aren’t even taking entrance exams for gifted programs. Four of the city’s 32 school districts don’t even have programs for gifted students, and many that do aren’t getting the word out. Which leaves it to savvy, pushy parents and watchful teachers to nudge kids forward, an arrangement that nearly always works better in middle-class communities.

Officials promised to continue trying to boost these numbers — but that’s not all that ails New York City’s approach to high-ability learners.

Every January, K–3 students who sign up for it may take a test to get into one of the city’s generally oversubscribed gifted programs. There’s a single city-wide score used to separate the wheat from the chaff: Pass, and you’re in; fail, and you’re not.

On its face, that approach looks fair. But it’s not. In Bedford-Stuyvesant’s District 16, for example, just 15 percent of test takers passed last year. In South Bronx District 7, it was 5 percent. Yet across a couple of rivers in Manhattan’s District 2, spanning the Upper East Side and much of the West Side, a whopping 42 percent of students...

Last week, in the wake of President Obama’s pledge to reduce the amount of time students spend taking tests, my colleagues Robert Pondiscio and Michael Petrilli weighed in with dueling stances on the current state of testing and accountability in America’s schools. Both made valid points, but neither got it exactly right, so let me add a few points to the conversation.

Like Robert, I don’t see how we can improve our schools if we don’t know how they’re doing, which means we need the data we get from standardized tests. But I also believe that—because we’re obligated to intervene when kids aren’t getting the education they deserve—some tests must inevitably be “high-stakes.” The only real alternative to this is an unregulated market, which experience suggests is a bad idea.

Must this logic condemn our children to eternal test-preparation purgatory? I hope not, but I confess to some degree of doubt. The challenge is creating an accountability system that doesn't inadvertently encourage gaming or bad teaching. Yet some recent policy shifts seem to have moved us further away from that kind of system.

As Mike noted, the problem of over-testing has been exacerbated in recent years by the...

What if federal aid for college students were focused exclusively on those who are truly ready for college? What if we stopped subsidizing remedial courses on campuses and insisted that students pursuing higher learning be prepared for college-level courses (none too strenuous nowadays in many places)? And what if those courses were also made available to young people even before they matriculated to a four-year program?

That would be a revelation and a revolution. But it might also do more to get young Americans and their schools serious about college readiness than anything we’ve dreamed up previously. It would save money. And it would end a great fraud that causes many college students to drop out—usually with heavy loan debts to either repay or default on—when they realize that they’ve been sorely misled as to their true preparedness for advanced-level academics.

Consider the irony: Today, federal financial support is available for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds to study high school math and English after they reach a college campus (a vast percentage of them are required to take these remedial classes); yet such aid is unavailable to academically aggressive sixteen- and seventeen-year olds from low-income households, who could accelerate their academic progress by taking...

A new study by the NAEP Validity Studies Panel analyzes the alignment of the assessment’s 2015 Math Items (the actual test questions) for grades four and eight to the math Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

To do so, the panel enlisted as reviewers eighteen mathematicians, teachers, math educators, and supervisors who have familiarity with Common Core. This group classified all 150 items in the 2015 NAEP math pool for each grade as either matching a CCSS standard or not.

The reviewers determined that the Common Core and NAEP were reasonably aligned at both grade levels— not surprising, since CCSS writers had the NAEP frameworks at their disposal. Further, NAEP is by design broader than the CCSS and is supposed to maintain a degree of independence relative to the “current fashions in instruction and curriculum.”

Panelists found that 79 percent of NAEP items were matched to the content that appears in the CCSS at or below grade 4. The overall alignment of NAEP to CCSS standards at or below grade eight is even closer, 87 percent.

There is, however, variation in matches across content areas. In fourth grade, the least aligned content area was data analysis, statistics,...

Although the charter sector has grown rapidly in both size and quality in recent years, there are still myriad issues holding it back from substantially improving public education. Most worrisome is the way charters have begun to resemble the district schools they were designed to differ from. In this new paper, the Mind Trust teams up with Public Impact to shine a light on how the sector can embrace its innovative roots in order to improve. The report outlines three key ideas: The sector must get better (slightly edging out traditional public schools isn’t good enough); the sector must get broader (underserved groups like at-risk students, special education students, English language learners, and students in rural communities still aren’t served effectively by charters); and bigger (approximately one million students are currently on charter waiting lists nationwide). The authors emphasize that creative thinking and innovation are the only ways forward in accomplishing these goals. Trying the same old things on new student groups, working harder instead of smarter, and failing to find more effective and sustainable ways to operate won’t expand the impact of charters. Instead, they will only deepen their similarity to traditional schools.

To achieve break-the-mold results,...

OK, everyone, back away from the ledge. With the release of NAEP data this week, the predictable deluge of commentary is well underway—mainly of the gnashing-of-teeth, rending-of-garments variety. NAEP may be the nation’s report card, but it is also the nation’s Rorschach test. Perception is in the eye of the beholder, and many see darkness and misery: “A Decade of Academic Progress Halts,” says the Los Angeles Times. “Student Score in Reading and Math Drop,” says U.S. News & World Report.

One of the frequent criticisms of NAEP punditry is “misNAEPery”—the sin of attributing fluctuations to particular policies, for example. One particularly virulent form of this fallacy—failure to account demographic changes in states over time—has become slightly less tenable this week, courtesy of this illuminating analysis by Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute.

Not every state is the same. States with higher concentrations of black and Hispanic children, low-income families, and English language learners (ELLs) have a harder time rising to the top because they have more students mired at the bottom. But when you adjust for these demographic realities, a different NAEP emerges. There’s Massachusetts, still sitting pretty atop the tables. But Texas and...

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama received high praise from parents and teachers for acknowledging that testing is taking too much time away from teaching, learning and fostering creativity in schools, and recommending that standardized tests take up no more than 2 percent of total school instructional time. Frankly, this is arrant nonsense.

From time to time, I'm asked to give a talk about education. If I look at how I spend my time over the course of a year, giving presentations and speeches is a very small part of my job—less than 2 percent. However, if my effectiveness were to be judged on the audience response to the handful of talks I give each year, I'd spend a lot more time writing and practicing speeches. I'd fret endlessly over my PowerPoint slides and leave-behinds. I'd sprinkle in more jokes to be entertaining; I'd probably say whatever I thought would get audiences to like me more, rather than challenging my listeners. I'd definitely spend a lot more on suits and dry cleaning than I do now.

But most critically, I'd spend far less time on all the other things I do—writing, reading,...

Unfortunately, the rumors, predictions, and surmises were correct: Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are mostly down or flat. The worst news came in eighth-grade math, where twenty-two states saw declines. One of the only bright spots is fourth-grade reading, where ten states (as well as Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland) posted gains.

Why this happened will be combed over and argued. So far, it feels like anyone’s guess (more on that below). But there’s no denying that it’s bad news. It had come to seem like NAEP scores would always go up, at least over the long term, just like it had come to seem like murder rates would always go down. Now the real world has intervened to remind us that social progress is not inevitable. Let’s not sugarcoat it: This is deeply disheartening for our country, our K–12 system, and especially our kids.

As our friends in the research community like to remind us, it’s impossible to draw causal connections from changes in NAEP data; doing so is “misNAEPery.” Yet we can’t help but search for explanations. And we can certainly float hypotheses about the trends—educated guesses that can then be tested using...

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserve credit for acknowledging this weekend that there’s too much testing in our schools today and that “the administration bears some of the responsibility.”

Indeed it does. That’s because its decision to condition ESEA flexibility on state adoption of teacher evaluation systems has not only raised the stakes of reading and math tests (making them less popular and potentially more damaging to the educational enterprise). It’s also led to a proliferation of tests in “non-tested subjects”—everything from P.E. to social studies and beyond—for the sole purpose of collecting data to judge teachers’ effectiveness.

Yet, as Matt Barnum argues persuasively at the Seventy Four, the feds aren't willing to actually fix this problem:

The new report did not capture a precise measure on what proportion of tests were required by teacher evaluation, but it does point out that many states have put in place new assessments “to satisfy state regulations and laws for teacher and principal evaluation driven by and approved by U.S. Department of Education policies.”

But an initial reading of the department’s guidance suggests it is sticking to these policies: “The Department will work with states...