National Education Testing: The Boomerang Effect

I am opposed to mandatory national educational testing of students. Parents are responsible, not the State, for their children’s educations 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:

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

The test writers will design the tests to relieve political pressure on the teacher unions and the districts that employ them.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.The poor performance of the public school students will lead to demands for even more comprehensive testing.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 centralizers 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.


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

© 2001