by Margaret Spellings
The success of every student in reading and doing math on grade level is vital to the future success of our nation. As someone who was on the front lines of the deliberations on No Child Left Behind when it became law in 2002, I know that annual assessment data, required under the law, is critical to informing parents, teachers and the public about how all students are performing. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, show that No Child Left Behind has added to the focus on poor and minority students and resulted in increases in their achievement.
Prior to the federal requirement for annual assessments that was instituted in 2002, few states had assessments in place. That means that few students had the necessary information to truly meet the needs of each and every child. We must care enough about our young people to determine their progress and confront the issues that performance data reveal.
Annual, comparable, valid, reliable statewide assessments give educators and policymakers the ability to focus resources on problem areas, find strategies that work and reward results. Without this information, we are back to the days of spending taxpayer money and hoping for the best, and seeing a return to the flat achievement that plagued our nation and our students for so long.
Before No Child Left Behind, too many schools operated under what former President George W. Bush called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” By their actions and attitudes, many schools demonstrated they couldn’t and wouldn’t expect students of color and students from disadvantaged families to perform to high levels. That was unacceptable to lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle. Poor and minority kids fell through the cracks until No Child Left Behind shed a light on every child and insisted on better results.
That’s what the data proves.
According to the Nation’s Report Card, Hispanic and African-American nine-year-olds grew by two grade levels in reading between 1999 and 2008. In math, nine-year-old Hispanic students gained the equivalent of two grades during that same time, while African-American nine-year-olds increased their scores by about a grade and a half.
Let me be perfectly clear: Our main concern must be students. Timely and transparent reporting of data is the only way to keep the focus where it belongs, on increasing student achievement. How else will we know whether they are prepared for college or a good job after high school? How else will we ensure that they aren’t being pushed through the system by those who were elected to ensure they received the best possible education and opportunity for the future?
The Texas Senate Education Committee recently unanimously approved legislation that would let high school kids receive their diploma without having demonstrated that they have the basic skills and knowledge to be successful in attending college, work or in life. These are assessments carefully designed with input from classroom teachers. They are a way to check whether what is happening in the classroom matches what is expected by the state.
The argument for it is that nearly 30,000 seniors will be unable to pass the exams and therefore will be limited in their future opportunities. But when we eliminate the requirement that assesses their college and job readiness, how successful can we expect their future opportunities to be? It is a cruel trick to suggest they are ready for life when the data show otherwise.
The question we should be asking is why the same student who cannot pass a ninth or tenth grade level test is receiving passing grades in the classroom.
With No Child Left Behind reauthorization, there are many ways to update a bill that was written more than a decade ago. But for the sake of every student, and our nation’s future, we must retain annual, statewide, comparable student assessments in reading and math. These critically important accountability tools in foundational subjects provide transparency and objective information for parents and policymakers.
We must use this opportunity to move education forward and not dilute the progress that has been made.
Margaret Spellings is president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center and was the U.S. secretary of education from 2005-2009.