Don’t Fall For Easy Catch Phrases Like “Race To The Bottom”*

*See correction at end of this post.

A throwaway line in Claudio Sanchez’s recent 6 Education Stories To Watch In 2016 generated a bit of behind the scenes discussion over the past couple of days.

In the segment, the veteran NPR education reporter recaps the recent past and makes a half dozen predictions – among them that the controversy over Common Core state standards will lessen in 2016:

“States will continue their efforts to re-brand or rename the standards, while for the most part following them. Despite the political controversy, the push for high academic standards will continue, and we’ll see little of the “race to the bottom” that happened under NCLB.”

What caught my eye at first was the prediction. I’m not so sure that the Common Core controversy is going away as soon or as dramatically as Sanchez seems to think.

But it was the “race to the bottom” line about NCLB that proved most interesting to consider, given that it’s not a prediction for the future but something that can in theory be verified.

Sanchez is far from the first person to claim that there was a race to the bottom under NCLB, usually meaning that states lowered their expectations on standardized testing in order to improve their proficiency rates on annual report cards.

Recently-departed EdSec Arne Duncan was one of the main proponents of this argument.

Peter Elkind’s new Fortune magazine article on Common Core notes that “To bring themselves closer to 100%, many states simply lowered the score needed to pass their tests.”

But it’s not at all clear that this is what actually happened during the years following the passage of NCLB in 2002 — or that NCLB was to blame. 

A 2009 NYT story by Sam Dillon reported one studying showing that some states lowered their standards – but most did not.

Fifteen states lowered one or more standards. Ten of them (including Duncan’s home state) lowered both math and reading.

Eight states raised one or more standard.

A 2010 study showed that slightly more states raised standards than lowered them. NWEA found similar results in this report.

In 2012, the Fordham Institute described the trend as more of a “walk to the middle” than a “race to the bottom.”

Even Duncan, a big favorite of blaming NCLB for states lowering standards, had reined in the critique by last spring, when during an MSNBC appearance he said that only about 20 states had taken that route

So what’s going on, then?

The first and most obvious answer is that the “race to the bottom” line has gotten repeated so much that it’s presumed to be true. It’s simple, and convenient for critics of both NCLB specifically (like Duncan) and standardized testing in general (say, Diane Ravitch in her current iteration).

If so, Sanchez is guilty of nothing more – or less – than passing along a line that’s widely considered to be true without checking.

Another possibility is that two different ideas – lowering proficiency requirements and moving away from open-ended test items – have gotten conflated.

Some states lowered the “cut scores” required to pass tests, and others went from written response kinds of essay questions to multiple choice bubble tests.

This is an argument put forth by the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Bob Rothman: “States also lowered standards when they went to low-level tests, as most states did under NCLB.” Rothman cites a RAND study showing that “only 2 percent of math items and 20 percent of ELA items on state tests measured higher-level abilities.”

The form of the test and the rigor of the test items aren’t necessarily the same. And the number of test responses required to be considered passing is another thing. NCLB supporters like DFER’s Charlie Barone and former Bush Administration education guru Sandy Kress question Rothman’s take on the situation.

But it’s not hard to see how a move to bubble-in responses in some states, plus a dozen or so states making tests easier, would create the impression that states were racing to the bottom – even if the majority of states aren’t making the same moves.

A third possible explanation is that observers are confounding what states did in response to the 2002 NCLB law with what they did in response to so-called NCLB “waivers” that the Obama administration gave out more recently.  A 2012 EdWeek story about the impact of the NCLB waivers noted that “only eight [of 34] states set the same targets for all students” under their waiver plans. 

Asked about the issue, Sanchez responded that his remarks were based on research from pro-standards outfits like Achieve and Alliance for Excellent Education showing that most states did little or nothing to raise standards or adopt rigorous tests in response to NCLB, as well as his own interviews with state and district school officials who said that NCLB was going to cause them to water things down.

 What makes the question important rather than academic is that it reminds education journalists to pay close attention to avoid repeating easy catch phrases that might be bandied about over current education efforts — Common Core, ESSA implementation. Once they become commonplace, observations like “race to the bottom” become extremely hard to stamp out. 

*CORRECTION: Three states (CT, KY, &MS) did not go to 100 percent multiple choice, as originally written and attributed to Rothman.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.