National Education Testing: The Boomerang Effect

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am opposed to mandatory national educational testing of students.
Parents are responsible for their children’s education’s, not
the State, at any level. They should mandate the tests, not the
State. Mandatory national testing of all school-age children is
an invasion of parental liberty. In addition, the Constitution
does not authorize the U.S. government’s activities in the field
of education. So, what else is new?

Am I worried about this program? Only as a taxpayer.

I am committed to Ludwig on Mises’s observation that whatever
the civil government does to overcome outcomes in a free market
can be expected to produce the opposite effect of whatever the
intervention officially is designed to accomplish.

What is the official justification for mandatory national testing
of all students? "To improve student performance by increasing
the accountability of the schools." I therefore make the
following predictions:

  1. Educational performance of a majority of students will decline
    as a result of the tests, if they are actually implemented.

  2. The
    test writers will design the tests to relieve political pressure
    on the teacher unions and the districts that employ them.
  3. Public
    school students, most of whom will be forced by law to take these
    tests, will under-perform private school students, whose parents
    will resist such testing.
  4. The
    poor performance of the public school students will lead to demands
    for even more comprehensive testing.
  5. The
    recommended solution to student failure will be to spend more
    money on public education.


When anything doesn’t measure up in the world of tax-funded bureaucracy,
senior bureaucrats’ responses are always the same: (1) demand
more controls to be placed at their disposal; (2) demand more
money to be placed at their disposal; (3) demand more centralization,
i.e., more bureaucrats under the existing bureaucrats’ authority
(Parkinson’s Law); (4) demand that more papers be filled out,
under penalty of law.

This leads to inter-bureaucratic conflict. Those bureaucrats who
are under the centralizes fight back with cries of "special
local situation." With respect to national testing, teacher
unions will initially resist, demanding that their representatives
be part of the committee that designs the tests. Testing will
make some of their members look bad. This will call into question
the competence of the unions’ screening system. But the unions
will not resist long if enough money for public education is forthcoming,
which is what Bush’s bill proposes. Also, Ted Kennedy is back
in the saddle again. There will be more money.

No teacher is allowed to create tests that 50% of his students
fail. The same rule will hold for national testing of the results
of teachers. The tests will be designed to allow 80% of all students
to pass.

Among the 20% who fail, about 10% will then be given second chances:
summer school, special tutoring, provisional matriculation to
the next grade level, etc. About 5% will be said to be victims
of racial or other discrimination, and therefore will be re-tested
indefinitely. The final 5% will be said to be within the statistical
range of failure. They will be re-enrolled at the same grade level,
thereby ensuring an extra year of taxpayer funding for each student
who remains in school until graduation. (These percentages are
flexible within the overall 20%.)

Tests require negative sanctions if they are to change people’s
behavior. What will it mean to fail? Who fails? Students? "Spend
more money on our children!" Teachers? "Require additional
teacher education in state-certified institutions, at taxpayer
expense." School districts? "Replace the district superintendent
with someone who has an improved plan." An occasional low-level
administrative head will roll, just for publicity’s sake. Tenure
protects the teachers.

The only general negative sanction that will be seriously discussed
will be on taxpayers. Why should these new tests change 170 years
of practice? "Pass-fail" always means that the schools
have passed and taxpayers have failed. "We must stop short-changing
our children. We must spend more money."

This leads me to a conclusion. The unstated purpose of the proposed
national tests is to create opportunities for national politicians
to justify to the voters back home an increase in Federal public
school spending. Additional Federal money will then justify another
round of testing and controls in the name of greater accountability.

music goes round and round, oh oh/oh oh [boom, boom], and it comes
out here."


Another unstated goal of mandatory national testing is to bring
private education under the controls. This will not be easy to
achieve. The day schools will be divided. Most will conform; a
few will resist.

Finally, most private school students will take the national exams.
The vast majority will pass, probably about one year above grade
level. The teacher unions will complain: "Private schools
are unfairly siphoning off the better students. The results of
the national tests are not representative of the public schools’
performance." Then everything will go back to normal. The
public schools will get worse. Additional parents will pull their
children out.

Home schooling parents will be more likely to resist. If they
are forced into the testing system, one by one, after years of
court cases, their children will score significantly higher on
the tests than public school students. The teacher unions will
claim that these parents are unfairly siphoning the better students
out of the public schools. Then everything will go back to normal.
The public schools will get worse. Additional parents will pull
their children out.

The Left’s political problem with national testing of all students
is that the results will embarrass the public schools. It will
become more difficult to persuade voters that private school teachers
must meet the formal certification criteria that public school
teachers do.

National educational testing will provide additional evidence
that tax-funded education is still failing, private education
offers a better product, and home schooling is the best deal for
the money.


Those people who promote mandatory national educational testing
are either inexcusably naive or else self-conscious in their attempt
to justify additional controls and follow-up money to subsidize
the system that has produced the poorly equipped students.

Public education subsidizes academic failure. The greater the
failure, the more money is demanded to remedy it. Adam Smith made
this clear in 1776: if the government subsidizes something, the
market will respond by producing more of it. Governments subsidize
bad educational performance. When the money runs low at one level
of government, the call arises for additional funding from the
next higher level.

If the United Nations had lots of money to spend on education,
we would hear cries for mandatory international educational testing.


Gary North [send him mail]
is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary
on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion:
An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at

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