If school reform comes in waves, the latest, and some would say greatest, wave of reform may have just crested. The idea that public education can be reformed by setting high standards and holding schools accountable for reaching them is showing unmistakable signs of crashing. Public education is finding ways to comply with accountability standards without really improving. This spring three critical examples emerged.
April 2003 marked the twentieth anniversary of the landmark federal study A Nation at Risk (ANAR), giving journalists and researchers occasion to look back at the fate of some of the study's key recommendations. In a Koret-sponsored study, Our Schools and Our Future, and in a front-page story in Education Week, we learn that high school students today are taking more academic courses than students were in 1983—but not learning any more. From 1982 to 1998 the percentage of students taking the "new basics" recommended by ANAR jumped from 14 percent of graduates to 56 percent, but high school test scores on the federal National Assessment of Education Progress have barely budged. What ANAR failed to anticipate when it called for higher standards was the apparent watering down of tougher courses to make them more palatable.
But states did not stop with increasing high school course requirements. During the 1990s many states began requiring students to pass standardized tests to receive their high school diplomas. In the last year, however, at least five states—including trendsetters California, Florida, and Massachusetts—have relaxed their testing standards because too many students, after satisfying their course requirements, would have been denied diplomas based on their test scores.
The retreat on standards is not taking place just in high schools. In 2002 President Bush and Congress agreed on tough achievement standards for grades 3–8 in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), legislation hailed by many as historic. For the first time the United States would have something akin to the standards that other high-achieving nations have had for years. But faced with large numbers of schools that are failing to make "adequate yearly progress," states have begun lowering the federal standard. NCLB requires that all public schools bring all students to "proficiency" within ten years but leaves it to the states to define proficiency. In recent years many states had set tough proficiency standards, but with their schools now threatened with federal sanctions, states are lowering their definitions of proficiency.
Students and their families are the losers, but they need not be. Before standards and accountability come crashing down altogether, policymakers should remember that there is another wave of reform that has also been sweeping the nation—and that holds a prominent place in NCLB: school choice. Give families the right and the means to choose for their children schools that are achieving—other traditional public schools, new public charter schools, even private schools—and force schools to compete for their students. Parents will select schools that meet high standards. Schools that try to skirt standards will not be chosen and will be driven out of business. Through school choice, the nation might ride the accountability wave to higher standards and scores.