Commentary | Education

Lessons—How U.S. Punishes States With Higher Standards

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON SEPTEMBER 18, 2002 ]

How U.S. punishes states with higher standards

By Richard Rothstein

The new federal education law lets students leave high-poverty schools that are deemed failing. Districts must now use some of their federal money to bus these students to better schools.

In designing the new rules, President Bush and Congress hoped to protect local control while imposing an unprecedented standardization of education policy. So while schools must now bus children from failing schools, each state may define failure in its own way.

A perverse result is that the federal government now punishes states for having higher standards. Busing must be offered to children in any school that does not make adequate progress for two years in a row. The higher the state’s standard, the more progress a school must make.

The recklessness of this approach is evident from comparing states with large numbers of students who are now eligible for busing to states that do well on the only common test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (About two-thirds of the states now take part in this test; under the new law, all must do so.)

If the federal rules were rational, more busing would be required in states where children scored more poorly. But the opposite is mostly true.

For example, reading results for low-income eighth graders in Arkansas are close to the bottom of the nation. But the law mandates not a single Arkansas school to bus children out this year.

At the other extreme, New York State’s low-income eighth graders score quite high on the national reading test — seventh highest in the nation. But federal rules now require 19 percent of the state’s low-income schools to spend money on transportation to a different school, more than in three-fourths of the other states.

Massachusetts’ low-income eighth graders score about in the middle of the nation in reading. But 24 percent of the state’s low-income schools are deemed failing, higher than almost anywhere else.

Massachusetts policy makers pride themselves on having created some of the highest academic standards anywhere. But many of the state’s students are now being bused from “failing” schools that are actually better than schools in other states that are deemed “successful” and that receive bused students.

Paul Reville helped design the Massachusetts education plan and is now chairman of a commission that oversees it. Mr. Reville said the new federal law had made the state’s effort look silly, and state leaders are now wondering if they have to lower standards to avoid federal sanctions. Busing is only the beginning. Penalties become more severe each year.

Lowering expectations is what happened in Ohio. When the federal government announced the busing rules in July, nearly a third of the state’s low-income schools had to provide busing, even more than in New York or Massachusetts. Ohio’s accountability program expected each school to get 75 percent of its students to a proficient level.

The federal rules require busing from any school that does not make steady progress toward the state goal, whatever that might be. In Ohio, this created an absurd condition. A school with stagnant scores, where 70 percent of students were proficient for two years in a row, would be deemed failing. Students could be bused from this school to one that had made more progress by increasing the number of proficient students to 20 percent from 15 percent.

So this summer Ohio changed its rules so schools had to get only 42 percent of its students to proficiency. This cut the number of schools subject to the federal busing requirement nearly in half.

Some of this irrationality may be fixed in 2003 because the law will then require every state to use the same definition of adequate progress toward its goal.

But states will still be permitted to set different goals, so those with higher standards may bear the brunt of federal sanctions.

National and state officials refer to the situation as an “unintended consequence” of the new law. But this lets them off the hook too easily. While the results may have been unintended, they could easily have been foreseen. Before the federal law was adopted, many skeptics warned that reconciling federal and local control of education would be impossible.

It is hard to imagine how tinkering with the rules can fix the problem. The only real solution is for the federal government to effectively repeal the law — by issuing waivers from the rules to states that want to improve schools in their own way.

This will be politically difficult. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has often denounced the Clinton administration for issuing waivers to states from testing rules in the 1990’s.

Mr. Paige has vowed that he will not be pushed around so easily, but this remains to be seen.

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