“Everybody do the FCAT! Yeah!”
(Guest post by Greg Forster)
This morning, Jeb Bush comes out for a national school grading system on NRO.
What he’s proposing is a federal grade A to F for each school, based on both performance level and improvement – kind of the way Florida schools are graded under the A+ system (though Jeb doesn’t propose federal sanctions for poorly performing schools, just a grading system). He justifies the move on grounds that the NCLB system encourages states to lower standards.
Jeb doesn’t discuss this in the article, but readers of JBGB know that a clash has been brewing between Florida’s A+ program and NCLB. Florida, which has had success with the A+ program (where improvement in performance is a factor alongside performance level), is going to run into the 2014 “everybody must be proficient” wall along with everyone else.
No doubt our own Matt Ladner, chronicler of the looming conflict in the posts linked above, will have more to say about this (hopefully including some more classy artistic illustrations), but just to put my own two cents in, I’m not clear on why there needs to be a national grade.
For that matter, I’m not even convinced we need a national test, since that sacrifices the merits of interstate competition. At both the state and federal levels, the test is being developed and implemented by a bureaucracy that is heavily colonized by the defenders of the status quo and thus will be looking for opportunities to dumb down the test or manipulate the scoring to make schools look better. But if one state dumbs down while another (under political pressure from reformers) stays the course and makes real improvement, that creates pressure on the dumb state to get with it.
The impetus for a single national test, it seems to me, is because federal rewards and punishments create an incentive to dumb down. If we’re not going to have rewards and punishments based on the scores, what’s the need for a single national test? Why not just require each state to maintain a transparent testing system of its own devising – or, if that’s not good enough, require each state to purchase and use one of the major privately developed national tests?
But we can leave that aside. Let’s stipulate the case for a national test. Still, if you’re not going to hold schools accountable with rewards and penalties, then why issue grades along with the test scores? Why not just give a test and report the results numerically, and let private organizations put together their own grading systems? That way people can decide for themselves what aspects of performance measurement matter most, rather than turning the job over to a federal bureaucracy that has an incentive to make schools look better.