MORE NCLB….Matt Yglesias thinks I’m being paranoid when I say that some of NCLB’s supporters view it as a clever Trojan horse designed to officially label public schools as failures:

Does Kevin really expect me to believe that this is what Ted Kennedy and George Miller, the law’s leading Democratic supporters in the Senate and the House, are up to?

….States have broad lattitude to define proficiency however they like and will, presumably, set proficiency standards that won’t simply result in their schools all “failing” across the board….It’s just not true that the law is has put the country on a collision course to a world in which 99 percent of public schools are labeled failures.

Let me make several points in response. You can all decide whether they’re fair ones:

  1. Details aside (about which see below), I support the basic idea of NCLB. I’m fine with testing and I’m fine with holding schools accountable.

  2. Different people had different reasons for supporting NCLB. I don’t think Ted Kennedy supported the 100% goal because he wanted to label public schools as failures, but I think that a lot of movement conservatives and evangelicals did. These are not people who would ordinarily favor a multi-billion expansion of education funding and an enormous new intrusion of federal oversight into local schools, after all. Rather, they reluctantly supported NCLB because they were persuaded that it was a stealth measure that would eventually undermine support for public education.

    Go ahead, call me paranoid. All I can say is that in the past, when I’ve given George Bush and his enablers the benefit of the doubt on things like this, I’ve turned out to be wrong.

  3. Three years ago, when I asked about the 100% requirement, people told me that of course it would be relaxed. Just wait until NCLB comes up for renewal. 100% was nothing more than a nice-sounding goal that helped get the bill passed in the first place.

    Well, it’s renewal time and Republicans are still loudly insisting that we keep the 100% requirement. “Which child do Democrats want to leave behind?” they ask unctiously. So what happened?

  4. The obvious solution to the 100% requirement, as Matt points out, is that school districts will simply reduce their standards to a point where even drooling idiots can pass. Not so. There are political limits to how absurdly low you can set standards, and in any case you’re not likely to literally get a 100% pass rate even if all you have to do is randomly fill in bubbles. There’s always going to be at least one kid in most schools who screws the thing up no matter how easy it is.

    Besides, does this make any more sense than the 100% pass rate requirement? Why would anyone support a bill that motivates public schools to set comically low standards? Answer: see #2 above.

So what should we do? Aside from setting a high but reasonable bar (wouldn’t you be happy if 95% of America’s schoolchildren genuinely showed proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic?), check out the proposal for smarter NCLB testing that Tom Toch made in “Measure for Measure,” in our October 2005 issue. His ideas make a lot of sense.

POSTSCRIPT: I should add that it’s a fair question to ask who got suckered here. Did Ted Kennedy get suckered, because it’s going to turn out to be impossible to reduce the 100% requirement, thus harming public education in the long run? Or did the conservatives get suckered, agreeing to billions of dollars in federal education spending only to eventually see the 100% requirement loosened and public schools in stronger shape than ever?

Who knows? But either way, conservatives sure aren’t acting as though reasonable, meetable standards are what they actually care about.

UPDATE: Kevin Carey responds here and here. He makes one or two good points, but doesn’t even come close to addressing the primary question: Why does NCLB mandate a 100% passing requirement if everyone agrees that it’s unreachable? Color me unconvinced, though wide open to further argument. As always, of course, click the links and judge for yourself.