Predictably, most states have responded to the mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act — that 100% of their students achieve proficiency in reading and math by the year 2014 — by dumbing down the tests used to measure proficiency.
The law allows each state to set its own standards. It also, however mandates the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the differences between NAEP scores and state-test scores are instructive. South Carolina is a holdout — and is being punished for it — but apparently many of the red states have instituted easy-to-pass tests rather than trying to get their schools to actually teach anyone anything. In Tennessee, 87% of students are proficient by state standards, but only 21% under NAEP; in Mississippi, it’s 89-18.
There’s a good argument for standards-driven education; we pay for schools so kids can learn, and if you don’t measure outcomes its hard to manage for outcomes. On the other hand, there’s a good argument for hiring competent teachers and letting them teach, rather than trying to convert classrooms into learning factories with dumb output measures. (If we’re going to run out schools by test results, then we ought to spend the money to make sure that the tests measure the right things.)
But surely having test-centered education with low-threshold tests must be the worst of all possible worlds.