Slippery Standards

The Left's secret to fixing failing test scores.

Two seemingly unrelated stories in the news last week reveal the bankruptcy of the progressive mindset.  In Dayton, Ohio, under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, the city's Police Department is changing its passing grades--again--on tests for police recruits.  Last Wednesday, in a report to Congress, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan revealed that up to 82 percent of public schools could be labeled "failing" because they don't meet the requirements established by the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB).  Duncan claimed the law needed to be "fixed." In both cases, the "fix" is lowering standards.

In Dayton, the motive is racial.  According to the Justice Department, which rejected the original scores submitted by the Dayton Civil Service Board, "not enough African-Americans passed the test." Dayton needs a substantial number of new recruits to replace the "dozens" of officers who have filed for retirement.  Yet the DOJ's rejection of the original test has delayed hiring for months.

Perhaps some sort of rational argument could be made for the attempt to increase minority presence in the police and fire departments. Dayton is a city with a minority population of approximately 40 percent, but less than 10 percent of that minority is represented in either department.  The city spent over $500,000 to settle a federal hiring discrimination lawsuit which mandates that they "diversify" both.  Yet in November,  when the city officials announced their intention to hire additional cops, more than 3,500 people showed up to take the test--but only 21 percent of them were minorities, which is nearly identical to the percentage which applied for the exam in 2006, prior to the suit.

Malik Aziz, president of the National Black Police Association, attributes this to a lack of recruitment efforts.  “That’s a repeated recipe for failure.  There is no season for recruiting--it happens year round. Departments who do this largely fail at recruiting minorities and long-term it’s a recipe for disaster.”  Mr Aziz is referring to the fact that the department's recruiting office was unmanned for a year prior to last May.  But Police Chief Richard Biehl claims that was the result of budget cuts.  And despite the city's ability to recruit beyond its borders for this test, further budget cuts "will likely choke off recruiting efforts again after this testing cycle," according to city officials.

The Justice Department's solution?  Dayton must lower the passing grade on the test scores.  Again, one could make a rational argument for grading "on a curve," were it not for one inconvenient reality:  under the older requirements, candidates needed a grade of 66 percent on part one of the exam and 72 percent on part two.  The new scoring requirements lower those grades to 58 percent and 63 percent, respectively.  Thus, what would be considered failing in the first case and barely passing in the second (assuming one considers a passing grade to be 60 percent) becomes sufficient to be employed as a police officer in Dayton. Officials report that 258 more people "passed" the test, but the city refused to say how many of them were minorities.

Incredibly, such standards represented an improvement, at least with respect to the 2006 exam. According to, the city set the passing grade that year at 70 percent, yet the pass rates for whites was 68.1 percent, while the pass rate for blacks was 28.7 percent.  The results of that test engendered the lawsuit.  The DOJ's rationale? "While African Americans constituted 16.2 percent of all applicants who took that examination, African Americans constituted only 7.6 percent of the applicants who passed that examination--a result that reduced the proportion of African American applicants under consideration by approximately 50 percent," stated the lawsuit.

Dayton NAACP President Derrick Foward illuminated reality with regard to the latest exam.  “The NAACP does not support individuals failing a test and then having the opportunity to be gainfully employed,” he said. Dayton Fraternal Order of Police President, Randy Beane offered another reality check.  “It becomes a safety issue for the people of our community.  It becomes a safety issue to have an incompetent officer next to you in a life and death situation," he said.

Neither man, nor anyone else at this writing has addressed the proverbial 800-pound gorilla:  what if an insufficient number of minority recruits still hasn't passed the test?  How much further would the Justice Department be willing to lower the bar to achieve statistically satisfying results?

Perhaps a similar question should be posed to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  After last week's announcement that 82 percent of American public schools were in danger of "failing," Duncan suggested a similar solution.  "No Child Left Behind is broken and we need to fix it now," Duncan testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "This law has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk."

Once again, there might be a rational argument for tweaking the law.  In projecting school performance, the Department of Education uses the top 25 percent of the nation's public schools to calculate the rate at which every school in the country should be improving.  This formula is apparently the primary reason that the percentage of schools considered to be failing would increase from 37 percent in 2010, to the 82 percent projection for the current year.  And as Duncan rightfully points out, by labeling the "vast majority" of schools as failing, it becomes far more difficult to target the ones in need of the most help.  Furthermore, one might have to concede that the law itself created unreasonable expectations.  No Child Left Behind was designed to make 100 percent of public school students proficient in reading and math by 2014.  Considering the state of many public schools in the country, including inner-city schools where graduation rates are less than 30 percent, this might be the Mother of All Unreasonable Expectations.

Yet Duncan's desire to create a law which is "fair and flexible" sounds depressingly familiar because, once again, codified standards end up being the first casualty.  Paul Manna, a professor focusing on education policy at the College of William & Mary, puts his finger on the problem:  what is considered "proficient" in math and reading varies by state. The New York Times illuminates where fair and flexible with respect to proficiency will inevitably lead: "....the law gives states considerable leeway to manipulate their testing systems to help more schools meet goals. In South Carolina, about 81 percent of elementary and middle schools missed targets in 2008. The State Legislature responded by reducing the level of achievement defined as proficient, and the next year the proportion of South Carolina schools missing targets dropped to 41 percent."

Perhaps the Times should have looked in its own back yard.  In New York City, a 2009 third grade math test required getting 11 points out of a possible 39 to "pass."  That's a raw score of 28 percent.  For that particular achievement New York paid teachers and administrators $100 million in bonuses for raising test scores.  On a math test given in June 2010, to see if fourth graders merited advancing to the next grade, partial credit was given--for wrong answers.  And that's recently.   For years, 55 percent was the passing grade New York required on three-of-five Regents exams in order to secure a high school diploma.  The state was under enormous pressure not to raise the standards to 65 percent on all five Regents exams in 2005.   The reason?  Higher standards would have a "disparate impact" on  minorities.

One can only wonder how such students would perform on real-world tests--such as the policeman's exam in Dayton Ohio, for example.

George W. Bush's impetus for implementing NCLB was to eliminate the "soft bigotry of low expectations."  Yet the one concept which would make the greatest impact on such expectations is that which one of the progressive movement's political mainstays has thoroughly rejected.  Teachers unions, who give over ninety percent of their campaign donations to the Democrat party will not countenance the best chance American children have for getting a good education:


At some point Americans are going to have to decide how many more futures they are willing to consign to the soft bigotry of low expectations in schools--or workplaces--in order to satisfy the progressive appetite for "social justice."

Social justice by which standards are manipulated, or cast aside, in order to achieve the "desired" results.  Social justice in which teachers unions have a de facto monopoly regarding public school funding and zoning restrictions requiring children to attend failing schools in their assigned districts.

Just as importantly, American minorities themselves are going to have to decide whether they will continue to be content to have themselves judged by different criteria, in order to achieve equality that is anything but, when the facade of progressive-inspired "standards" is stripped away.

Perhaps one day, Americans of every ethnic persuasion will come to understand the insidiousness of a ideological movement determined to use the heavy hand of government cater to the lowest common denominator of expectations--even as they would thoroughly reject such values for themselves and their children, in both school and the workplace.  Americans who find such "flexible" standards acceptable in schools and police departments might want to ask themselves how they would feel if such standards were extended to other arenas.

Airline pilots and surgeons come immediately to mind.

Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website