Connecticut Sues NCLB for Good Reasons

K-12 Testing

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings responded to Connecticut's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) lawsuit by raining insults on state officials, calling them "un-American" and lobbing the familiar charge that Connecticut schools employ the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Despite the tired rhetoric, Connecticut is on solid ground in critiquing the law.


The case itself is based on what appears to be one of the only legally viable avenues for litigation: NCLB is an unfunded mandate that will unfairly cost Connecticut hundreds of millions of dollars. Behind this simple rationale, a series of important principles are at stake.


Federal officials are correct that Connecticut has a larger achievement gap than most states, but they ignore the fact that this reflects extraordinarily huge income disparities between Connecticut's central cities and the rest of the state. In fact, Connecticut blacks and Hispanics score about average for their demographic groups on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the "nation's report card," but whites score much higher than average. If white students in states with relatively small achievement gaps scored as high as Connecticut whites, these states gaps' would resemble Connecticut's. Of course, this does not absolve the state from a share of responsibility, but it clarifies society's failure to address the deeper issues of poverty.


Spellings rejected Connecticut's request to waive NCLB's annual testing requirement (Connecticut students are tested in grades four, six, eight and 10), arguing that students must be tested each year so teachers can identify problems and address them. But substantial evidence supports State Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg when she says the added test data would do nothing to improve teaching and learning and the money would be better spent on proven programs like quality preschools (see Examiner, Spring 2005). "I'm a parent myself," Sternberg says. "And in fact, in my whole career here in Connecticut in 25 years, I have never heard nor been asked by any parent to provide more of that kind of testing information."


Federal officials are essentially saying Connecticut must abandon what it views as higher quality but more expensive forms of assessment for low-cost multiple-choice tests to meet the demand for annual testing. The state Board of Education is right to fear that more but lower quality tests will undermine educational quality, but Spellings has been nothing if not clear that she sees testing as the "linchpin" of NCLB.


NCLB's fundamental problems will remain even if Connecticut wins its case. A win could slow further damage or encourage Congress to put up more money; but more money for a bad law is not the answer.