Hot Air: How States Inflate Their Educational Progress Under NCLB

Kevin Carey
Education Sector
May 2006

The folks at Education Sector could use a cold shower. Last week they were hot and humid about Florida's charter schools; this week, they're burning up about the race to the bottom. Their new report's conclusion won't surprise Gadfly readers: states are finding myriad ways to game No Child Left Behind to make their schools appear better than they really are. (See here, here, here, here... you get the point.) But never before have states' flimflam tactics been so effectively exposed and deconstructed. Author Kevin Carey spends twelve sickening paragraphs explaining how Wisconsin, the champion finagler, managed to conclude that 99.8 percent of its school districts are making adequate progress under the law. It's a veritable Greatest Hits of statistical voodoo and indefensible spin, and provides insight into the mindset of state education officials who will do anything to let failing schools and districts off the hook (see here). Carey also provides a user-friendly Pangloss Index, ranking states by the degree to which they report wildly optimistic numbers across a range of indicators, from the percentage of students proficient in reading, to the number of schools considered "persistently dangerous," to the proportion of "highly qualified" teachers. Especially useful is the appendix, where you can find state-by-state data on these indicators all in one place. Yet the conclusion disappoints, tying itself in knots trying to find a "Third Way" solution to this mess. Carey is for national standards-at least for graduation rates, reading, and math, but not for history, and probably not for science. And certainly not for indicators that focus on the "how" of education (like minimum qualifications for teachers' aides), which he says should be defined by states with oversight from Uncle Sam. Why not just admit that it was a bad idea for the federal government to regulate these kinds of inputs in the first place? Still, reporters, watchdogs, and elected officials in every state should read this report and then ask their departments of education: how many of these games are you playing? Download it here.

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