Say what you will about the No Child Left Behind federal education law — and plenty has been said by folks on all sides. The law promoted two important ideas: that schools should be held accountable for verifiable progress by students, and that kids trapped in failing schools should have the choice to escape for a better education elsewhere.
In that light, Georgia’s request to be exempted from key parts of the law offers a big step forward on measuring achievement, and a small but significant step backward on choice.
The biggest problems with No Child Left Behind were two-fold. First, it was a top-down, federal intrusion into education policy, which ought to be a state responsibility.
Second, it put all the achievement emphasis on a single test. In Georgia’s case, that test managed both to lack rigor and to leave unscrupulous educators room to cheat to ensure their classes made the crucial Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
After schools in Atlanta and Dougherty County were found to have committed widespread cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, or CRCT, there were calls to de-emphasize the use of standardized tests as evaluation tools.
Thankfully, Georgia wants to move in the opposite direction — by including more objective ways to judge schools.
If anything, the new lists of criteria may be too long. There are 20 factors in play just for high schools, ranging from the graduation rate to the percentage of pupils earning a Work Ready Certificate or scoring well on Advanced Placement tests. By including so many factors, we run the risk of diluting the meaning of each one.
But if the Obama administration approves the new criteria — and the president’s Friday announcement about changing the law suggests that’s likely — no one will be able to say that the fate of a teacher or school rested on how a group of students felt on the morning of a particular test.
Best of all, Georgia will chart its own course based on our specific needs, rather than having it set by federal educrats.
Georgia needs more high school graduates who are ready for the workplace, technical schools or universities. The new criteria are designed to push schools to produce more of those graduates. (Importantly, high schools’ scores would suffer if too many of their graduates required remedial education in college.)
On the whole, all this is to the good. Here’s what isn’t — so far:
No Child Left Behind gave a choice to students in schools that consistently failed to make AYP. They could transfer to other public schools. Now, Georgia wants to drop that provision.
The state says less than 5 percent of students opted to transfer. That may seem like a small number, but “if it gave even two students the ability to get a better education than they were getting, it was worthwhile,” argues Eric Cochling, a vice president at the pro-school-choice Georgia Family Council.
School choice has been reeling in Georgia lately. A baby-step voucher bill has died in the state Senate each of the last two years, and the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow this spring when it struck down our strongest charter-schools law.
The choice provision of No Child Left Behind wasn’t adequate, but it was better than nothing. Dropping it might be forgivable if the Legislature expands public and private choice options next year. If not, it’ll be a stain on an otherwise positive change.
– By Kyle Wingfield