Battle of the titans

Conservative guru Charles Murray blasted No Child Left Behind in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

NCLB takes a giant step toward nationalizing elementary and secondary education, a disaster for federalism. It pushes classrooms toward relentless drilling, not something that inspires able people to become teachers or makes children eager to learn. It holds good students hostage to the performance of the least talented, at a time when the economic future of the country depends more than ever on the performance of the most talented. The one aspect of the act that could have inspired enthusiasm from me, promoting school choice, has fallen far short of its hopes.

NCLB is justified only if it’s raising performance, Murray writes. But it’s not.

Jay Greene and Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute come back at Murray in today’s National Review, arguing high-stakes testing does improve student learning.

Reducing teacher autonomy by requiring students to learn tested material is only worrisome if it doesn’t also produce real learning.

But student scores on low-stakes tests, which teachers have no incentive to teach to, closely track their scores on high-stakes tests, a Manhattan Institute study found.

If the scores on high-stakes tests were manipulated or if students only learned skills that would help them to “beat” that particular standardized test without gaining real knowledge, then their results would not correlate with those of other respected tests on which there is no incentive to “teach-to” or manipulate.

Greene and Winters agree with Murray’s critique of the way scores are reported, but argue for better use of performance data, not abandoning the effort to measure results.

Without testing we have no way of knowing how well (or poorly) our schools are performing, and we are left to trust schools when they tell us that they are doing their best. That public schools insist that they are performing up-to-par should provide no more comfort than if your money manager insisted that you need not see your portfolio because he was working as hard as he could to invest your money properly.

Research suggests that high-stakes testing can improve real student proficiency.

NCLB really does tilt attention toward students at the bottom who most need testable foundation skills. Murray wants to focus on students at the top, but they’re already highly motivated by the race to get into competitive colleges.

Update: On Gadfly, Michael Petrilli defends “proficiency” as a meaningful concept. If the achievement gap remains because whites and blacks have improved, that’s progress, he writes. Also see Petrilli on the internal contradictions of NCLB in What Works vs. Whatever Works.

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