The federal law that everybody loves to hate turns
ten on Sunday. Here’s what to think about it:

  1. It worked! The Accountability Plateau coverAs Mark
    Schneider shows in his recent
    for Fordham—and as Eric Hanushek and others demonstrated
    before him—poor, minority, and low-achieving students made huge progress in
    math, and sizable progress in reading, during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
    Their most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress
    indicate all-time highs for most grades and subjects. These students are
    typically performing two grade levels ahead of where their peers were fifteen
    years ago in math, and are reading at least one grade-level higher. So how to
    explain these historic gains? While we can’t draw causal conclusions from NAEP,
    we can make educated guesses. What’s clear is that states that adopted
    “consequential accountability” in the nineties saw big test-score jumps, and
    the late-adopter states saw similar progress once No Child Left Behind kicked
    into action. So, while other factors could
    have been in play, too (such as efforts to reduce class size or the cessation
    of the crack-cocaine epidemic), there’s a pretty good case that testing and
    accountability succeeded in spurring higher student achievement, at least at
    the bottom of the performance spectrum.
  2. But it couldn’t
    work forever
    As Schneider argues, the
  3. ...

“Consequential accountability,” à la No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes state testing systems that preceded it, corresponded with a significant one-time boost in student achievement, particularly in primary and middle school math. Like the meteor that led to the decline of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, results-based accountability appears to have shocked the education system. But its effect seems to be fading now, as earlier gains are maintained but not built upon. If we are to get another big jump in academic achievement, we’re going to need another shock to the system—another meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system.

So argues Mark Schneider, a scholar, analyst, and friend whom we once affectionately (and appropriately) named “Stat stud.” Schneider, a political scientist, served as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005 to 2008, and is now affiliated with the American Institutes for Research and the American Enterprise Institute. In a Fordham-commissioned analysis released yesterday, he digs into twenty years of trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), aka the “Nation’s Report Card.”

We originally asked Schneider to investigate the achievement record of the great state of Texas. At the time—it feels like just yesterday—Rick Perry was riding high in the polls, making an issue of education, and taking flak from Secretary Arne Duncan for running an inadequate school system. We wondered: Was Duncan right to feel “...

After more than ten years under NCLB, that law’s legacy continues to be fiercely contested. This analysis of NAEP scores—focusing on Texas and on the entire nation—by former NCES commissioner Mark Schneider finds that solid gains in math achievement coincided with the advent of "consequential accountability," first in the trailblazing Lone Star State and a few other pioneer states, then across the land with the implementation of NCLB. But Schneider warns that the recent plateau in Texas math scores may foreshadow a coming stagnation in the country’s performance. Has the testing-and-accountability movement as we know it run out of steam? How else might we rekindle our nation’s education progress?

Download the analysis to find out, and be sure to watch the replay of Fordham's January 5 discussion of the paper and consequential accountability in general, "Has the Accountability Movement Run Its Course?"

baby bundled up photo

Drop some of those onerous layers, government!
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

For years, government has plastered new
regulations upon old, thickening the bureaucracy and making it ever harder to
move within its confines. In Colorado, for example, new rules for day-care
centers specify exactly how to execute nearly everything—including the number
of block sets (two) and the number of blocks (minimum of ten) needed in each
playroom. An anecdote, yes; but hyperbole or exception, no. Modern regulation,
as Common Good’s Philip Howard writes in the Wall Street Journal this week, “doesn’t just control undesirable practices—it
indiscriminately controls all the work of regulated entities,” arresting all
human discretion, good and bad. While the gut-wrench reaction is simply to blow
up the house, thick plaster and all, there’s a smarter way. Some old-fashioned
inputs are important (Colorado does
want to ensure that their day-care centers aren’t operating in window-less
basements filled with asbestos and chipping lead paint). But, Howard argues,
the majority of regulation should be outcomes-based. (Seattle is experimenting
with this
on the energy front now.) He’s right, as far as he goes, but may
have forgotten another key quality-control metric, articulated in our
recent paper on

Last week, 11 states applied for waivers from many of the Elementary
and Secondary Education Act’s most onerous provisions. Their
applications are now online, ready to be sliced and diced by any willing wonk. (Anne Hyslop of Education Sector has already taken a cut.) We at Fordham have tried to make the task a little bit easier by posting two compilations: First, the Common Core implementation plans for all 11 states, and second, all of their accountability proposals. Both are huge files but if your plans this weekend include a lot of downtime, have at ‘em.

Personally, I’m most interested in the states’ plans around
accountability. Partly that’s because this is the only part of this
waiver process that I find legitimate and legal;
the Department of Education has no business demanding that states adopt
and implement the Common Core standards or rigorous teacher
evaluations. But if it’s going to allow states to opt-out of the law’s
Adequate Yearly Progress system, it certainly has the right to set
boundaries around the alternatives. And partly it’s because the major
sticking point in the current negotiations over ESEA reauthorization
comes down to accountability, and how much leeway to give the states.

So what do these 11 states want to do differently on the
accountability front? Particularly when it comes to identifying schools
that should be subject to some sort of sanctions or interventions?

Political leaders hope to act soon to renew and fix the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind). In this important paper, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Executive Vice President Michael J. Petrilli identify 10 big issues that must be resolved in order to get a bill across the finish line, and explore the major options under consideration for each one. Should states be required to adopt academic standards tied to college and career readiness? Should the new law provide greater flexibility to states and districts? These are just a few of the areas discussed. Finn and Petrilli also present their own bold yet “reform realist” solutions for ESEA. Read on to learn more.

The 10 big issues

Issue #1 College and career readiness - Should states be required to adopt academic standards tied to college and career readiness (such as the Common Core)?

Issue #2 Cut scores - What requirements, if any, should be placed upon states with respect to achievement standards (i.e., "cut scores")?

Issue #3 Growth measures - Should states be required to develop assessments that enable measures of individual student growth?


This study examines the No Child Left Behind Act system and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rules for 28 states. We selected 36 real schools (half elementary, half middle) that vary by size, achievement, diversity, etc. and determined which of them would or would not make AYP when evaluated under each state's accountability rules. If a school that made AYP in Washington were relocated to Wisconsin or Ohio, would that same school make AYP there? Based on this analysis, we can see how AYP varies across the country and evaluate the effectiveness of NCLB.

Compare data from the 28 states in our study. Click here for the full-size map.

State Reports



The Thomas B. Fordham Institute appraises the current policy landscape and its main players, and outlines the ideal federal role in K-12 education. In summary, the various education associations, interest groups, experts and think tanks cluster into three major factions:

The System Defenders. They believe that the public education system is fundamentally
sound but needs additional resources in order to be more effective.
The Army of the Potomac. This camp has generally sound instincts about reform, but suffers from its boundless faith in Washington's ability to accomplish significant positive change in K-12 education.
The Local Controllers. They want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of K-12 education-but to keep sending money to states and districts.
• Fordham favors a fourth approach, which we call Reform Realism.

We believe the federal government should:

Provide flexible dollars targeted at disadvantaged children. Principals and superintendents, facing the sunshine of transparency around their schools' results, should be free to spend Washington's dollars as they see fit.
Foster common standards and tests. While asking federal bureaucrats or politicians themselves to set standards and create tests would be perilous, the President could bring governors together and task them with agreeing on what students should know and be able to do in core subjects at various stages of their K-12 schooling.
Offer cash incentives to states or districts to embark upon promising but politically treacherous reforms. The cleanest way to do this is to enhance the Title I...

Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, by Sol Stern, is an in-depth and alarming study of Reading First's betrayal.

President Bush vowed he would "leave no child behind." The centerpiece of his education agenda was Reading First, a new federal program aimed at helping poor children acquire basic reading skills. Under the leadership of White House domestic policy chief Margaret Spellings (then LaMontagne) and with support from Congress, Reading First was to provide funding to primary-reading programs that were based on scientific research. Christopher Doherty became Reading First's new director. His job was to ensure that Reading First schools used only programs that work and shunned those that don't.

Backlash and brouhaha followed. Aggrieved whole-language program proprietors complained bitterly that their wares couldn't be purchased with Reading First funds. They found a receptive ear in the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a bastion of green eyeshade and Dragnet types who weren't the least bit interested in children learning to read. The OIG launched a witch hunt against Doherty, falsely claiming that he was improperly favoring particular publishers. Despite the lack of evidence and the fact that Doherty was acting with the full knowledge and support of Margaret Spellings, this conscientious and hard-working public servant was forced to resign. Then the administration turned its back on Reading First, allowing the program to be gutted and starved of funding.

This report cites the real scandals of Reading First:

  • An influential "progressive" lawmaker, Rep. David Obey,
  • ...

The Proficiency Illusion" reveals that the tests that states use to measure academic progress under the No Child Left Behind Act are creating a false impression of success, especially in reading and especially in the early grades.

The report, a collaboration of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association, contains several major findings:

  • States are aiming particularly low when it comes to their expectations for younger children, setting
    elementary students up to fail as they progress through their academic careers.
  • The central flaw in NCLB is that it allows each state to set its own definition of what constitutes "proficiency."
  • By mandating that all students reach "proficiency" by 2014, it tempts states to define proficiency downward.
  • Although there has not been a "race to the bottom," with the majority of states dramatically lowering standards under pressure from NCLB, the report did find a "walk to the middle," as some states with high standards saw their expectations drop toward the middle of the pack.
  • In most states, math tests are consistently more difficult to pass than reading tests.
  • Eighth-grade tests are sharply harder to pass in most states than those in earlier grades (even after taking into account obvious differences in subject-matter complexity and children's academic development).

As a result, students may be performing worse in reading, and worse in elementary school, than is readily apparent by looking at passing rates on state tests.

Individual State Reports