• National Education Testing: The Boomerang Effect

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    I
    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.

    Bureaucracy
    101

    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.

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

    Private
    Education

    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.

    Conclusion

    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.

    May
    29,
    2001

    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 www.freebooks.com.

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