THE BLOG

The Zero Percent Chance of 100 Percent Success

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Gerald Bracey Fellow at the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University

"There is a zero percent chance that we will ever reach a 100 percent target," said Bob Linn at the March 13 joint House-Senate hearing on the No Child Left Behind law. The Washington Post identified Bob as the co-director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA and the University of Colorado. He had actually shown the impossibility of getting 100% of students to be proficient years ago by using wildly optimistic assumptions, to project 100% proficiency in12th grade mathematics166 years from now.

The article did not say that Bob is the most respected living psychometrician, a former president of both the American Educational Research Association and the National Council on Measurement in Education. But that is true. He's perceived as fair and objective. I can't imagine anyone accusing him of grinding an ax. I've known him since 1967 and the only negative thing I have heard in those years is that when he gives a speech he speaks too slow. In any case, those legislators damn well ought to have been listening closely.

"But because the title of the law is so rhetorically brilliant," Bob went on, politicians are afraid to change this completely unrealistic standard. They don't want to be accused of leaving some children behind." Indeed, US Deputy Secretary of Education Ray Simon actually said "We need to stay the course. The mission is doable, and we don't need to back off that right now." The Post article did not say if the audience groaned as Simon intoned these painful Iraq war slogans. I wonder if he also said "We can't cut and run."

What Bob didn't say is that behind that rhetorically brilliant title was a strategically brilliant plan to transfer huge sums of taxpayer money to the private sector through vouchers and the takeover of public schools by private corporations. Teddie Kennedy blocked the vouchers but compromised by permitting them to be replaced by Supplemental Educational Services. The SES deliver only a meager $2 billion of public funds each year.

"Are we going to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and say that only 85 percent of men are created equal?" This lame analogy from Lamar Alexander, mister-run-for-anything and currently a Senator from Tennessee. Of course, African Americans can tell you a thing or two about that, stemming from their 3/5 of a human reckoning in the Constitution. (For that matter the phrase' author, Thomas Jefferson, rejected it in matters academic, setting up a plan for education in Virginia whereby "twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually"). In any case equality was something we're endowed with by our creator, not something we attain by bubbling in answer sheets properly.

The whole proficient-or-left-behind dichotomy is, of course, phony. Achievement, reasonably defined, is a continuum, not part of an either/or. If we set the standard for "proficient" as a score of 80, would a student who scores 79 be "left behind?" To say so would be absurd, but that's how NCLB operates.

Moreover, the whole debate focuses on the wrong thing. From Jefferson's time through the 1940's the schools' function was civic. Jefferson argued that all governments degenerate and to prevent this, the people themselves needed to be educated. It is only in the post-Sputnik years that the focus has shifted, mistakenly, from education as necessary to preserve democracy to test scores uber alles as necessary to get a job and keep America competitive in the global economy.

But test scores tell us little in the long run. A 1974 paper from the American College Testing Program stated, "We conclude that academic talent as measured by test scores, high school grades and college grades is not related to significant adult accomplishment. Though a certain level of academic talent may be necessary to complete medical school, for example, the grades of medical students appear unrelated to later success as physicians."

Thus, high-stakes testing as represented in NCLB, Texas' TAKS, Virginia's SOLs, Florida's FCAT, etc., is demoralizing and corrupting teachers and administrators by gun-barrel emphasis on something that is, in the long haul, trivial. One can only hope that some day in the future we will look back and ask "What were we thinking?