A hex on state flex

Once upon a time, most of us at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation enthusiastically supported the notion of devolving K-12 decisions to the states. (See here, here, and here, for example.) We gladly signed on to the ambitious but ultimately doomed "Straight A's" plan, which would have had the federal government treat states like charter schools: Hold them accountable for improving student achievement, but otherwise let them be. After all, there is no font of wisdom flowing from the banks of the mighty Potomac about how to run schools. Furthermore, innovative governors (not federal officials) had been the heroes of the post-Nation at Risk era.

Ah, the times they are a-changin'. This week brings more news that states are playing games with the No Child Left Behind Act, this time to let schools off the hook even if their minority students are performing abysmally. (An Associated Press analysis found that an astounding 2 million students-most of them minorities-are being left behind by the law's accountability system because of these state decisions.) Last month we learned that the number of schools "in need of improvement" is remaining stable, even as states are supposedly ratcheting up their standards, mostly because of technical changes that states are making to their "Adequate Yearly Progress" definitions. (See a fascinating chart of how the numbers of schools making AYP break out by state, here.)

What's motivating the states? It's simple: politics. Local superintendents, school board members, and teachers associations abhor the spotlight and sanctions that come with tough accountability; they are responding by putting withering pressure on state officials to lower the bar. And, not surprising, some state officials are obliging.

That's worth keeping in mind as we watch the implementation of a new federal education initiative: Academic Competitiveness Grants. Created by Congress through this winter's omnibus appropriations act, this program provides super-sized Pell Grants for low-income college students who take a rigorous course of study in high school. The reasoning is understandable and commendable: There's plenty of evidence that students who take challenging college-prep courses are more likely to go on to complete higher education. As the situation currently stands, Congress spends a lot of money paying for low-income students to go to college, only to see them drop out after a semester or two. This new program is designed to create incentives-for students to take tougher classes in high school, and for school systems to make such courses of study more widely available. Thankfully, states were already starting to move in this direction by expanding Advanced Placement programs and signing up for the American Diploma Project.

But here's the rub. Deciding what constitutes rigor is left up to state departments of education, with oversight from the feds. Uh oh-here we go again. The chances seem high that we'll watch another race to the bottom, as states redefine "rigorous high school program" to ensure that as many students as possible get the extra bucks. It doesn't have to be this way. A recent letter signed by Achieve, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Fordham Institute explains how Secretary Spellings can ensure that the program has its intended effect of raising-not lowering-standards by being stringent about the definition of rigor. (In return, in my view, Washington should back away from the minutiae of how to get students to this standard.) But the best (if saddest) advice comes from a state schools chief, who told the Secretary in a closed-door meeting about the new program: Whatever you do, don't give us too much flexibility. That pretty much says it all.

 "States Omitting Minorities' Test Scores," by Nicole Ziegler Dizon, Ben Feller, and Frank Bass, Associated Press, April 18, 2006

"Bush's ‘No Child' Goals Not Met by Quarter of Schools," by Paul Basken, Bloomberg, March 28, 2006 

"The Alliance for Excellent Education Joins Achieve, Inc. and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Recommending Meaningful Implementation of New Academic Competitiveness Grants," Alliance for Excellent Education Press Release, March 24, 2006

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