REPORT: Dishonest Education Reporting by States Is 'Widespread'

Some of the education statistics sent by states to the federal government in compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act simply can’t be trusted, according to a new Cato Institute study of the law.

“Sadly, dishonest reporting about graduation rates turns out to be widespread,” writes Larry Uzzell in a Cato Institute policy brief titled, “NCLB: The Dangers of Centralized Education Policy.”

Uzzell, a former staff member of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. House and Senate committees on education, cites the example of California, which in late 2003 announced a graduation rate of 86.9%. However, California’s own specialists admitted the true figure was closer to 70%.

“Unless those data are honest and accurate and reliable, even when the findings are threatening to the same people who are in charge of finding and compiling it, then NCLB is not going to work,” Uzzell said at a Tuesday debate on recent opposition to the act, which was signed by President Bush in 2002.

Another critic, Utah state Rep. Margaret Dayton, who authored her state’s “No Child Left Behind Opt-Out” bill last year, also attacked the law during the Cato Institute debate.

Dayton said she disagrees with the law’s closing the achievement gap because it stifles children who perform at the top and makes students at the bottom such as special education children feel inadequate because NCLB tests students at the grade level instead of their own level.  “Some of them [special education students] are at their ultimate best,” she said.

“Who is in charge of the children?” she asked. “Because in Utah, Utah wants to take care of Utah’s children. We don’t think we’re perfect at it but we think that that is the best way to be doing it.”

Responding to the criticism was Nina Rees, an assistant secretary in the Department of Education, who defended the law. She said the “law was introduced at a time when, despite spending over $130 billion in federal funds on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we did not have any evidence at our disposal as to whether this funding was actually effective at raising student achievement.” 

She said the law has given federal officials a better understanding of the “horrendous achievement gap in our schools.” She said the average black or Hispanic 12th-grade student graduates today at the same level as the average 8th-grade white male. 

Regardless of whether states “fudge” numbers, and the government allows it, the law’s supporters said they recognize that certain areas need to be adjusted, particularly because the law is so new.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said that he also “worries about the education department’s competence in pulling NCLB off” and believes that there are some “shortcomings,” but also said “something like this law was needed and is needed.” 

“NCLB was enacted precisely because the United States of America, the wealthiest and most powerful society in the history of the planet, was and is leaving far too many children behind,” Finn said.

Rees said she recognizes there are some problems with the act. “We also realize that we have some challenges ahead of us as with any large piece of legislation being enacted at the federal level when we’re only investing only 8% of total funds in the entire endeavor,” she said. “There are going to be some challenges that we have to tackle if we want to make sure that this is implemented properly.”

She added, however, “The fact that we have states like Utah debating the implementation challenges of the law is a sign that the law is working.”