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By Jeffrey S. Solochek October 30, 2007
SUMMARY: Mitt Romney defends the federal No Child Left Behind Act because he says an earlier version of the legislation worked in Massachusetts.

Fred Thompson had just entered the Republican race for the presidency, and right off the bat started criticizing the No Child Left Behind Act.

"It's not working," the former senator said, adding that he regretted voting for the law.

Conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough had Mitt Romney on his show the next morning and asked the former Massachusetts governor to riff on his newest opponent's comments. Romney looked to his own experience as a guide.

"We had a No Child Left Behind — a similar piece of legislation in our state a number of years ago, well before the federal law. And it's had a big impact here. It's improved schools," he said.

Though it could use some "updates," Romney said, he supports the federal accountability law.

Why? Simple.

He has seen the effects of holding schools accountable through testing and standards in his own state. He refers specifically to his state's landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, which put such measures in place nine years before No Child took effect.

Did the changes have a "big impact," as Romney claimed? Did they truly improve schools?


Consider this: In 1998, just 7 percent of high school sophomores were scoring at the "advanced" level on the state's math exam. By 2007, 41 percent of sophomores could make that claim.

Over the same period, the percentage of sophomores failing the English exam dropped from 28 percent to 6 percent, with corresponding increases in the top ratings.

Then there's this nifty factoid: In 2005 and again in 2007, the state ranked first, or tied for first, in all four test categories, which includes math and reading in fourth and eighth grades. No state had done that before on the widely respected exam commonly called "the nation's report card."

The credit, experts say, goes to the state's longtime emphasis on setting high standards and then testing to determine that students have met those standards.

"In some respects, I would say you can track our success in Massachusetts to the fact that there was this issue of equity in education in the early 1990s," said Matt Militello, an assistant professor of educational policy at the University of Massachusetts.

But then there's the achievement gap.

David Driscoll, the state's education commissioner in 2005, wrote that the state's performance gaps between white, black and Hispanic students remained unchanged since 2003. In 2007, the state's interim commissioner, Jeffrey Nellhaus, noted that while the scores of white students were rising, those of black and Hispanic students were flat.

Robert Costrell, Romney's former chief economist and education adviser, doesn't dispute the gap. But he said that doesn't undo the state's overall improvement.

"The gaps are still quite significant and of great concern. But there absolutely was a closing of those gaps," said Costrell, now a professor of education reform and economics at the University of Arkansas.

Romney, of course, cannot claim the credit for beginning the state's accountability program.

Militello suggests that the former governor can, at best, claim to have been in the right place at the right time to witness the improvements. As the Boston Globe reported, Romney did not get many of his own reforms, such as merit pay for teachers, enacted, because he was thwarted by a Democrat-dominated Legislature that ignored him.

That did not change Romney's commitment to No Child-like initiatives, Costrell said. The governor pressed the state to adopt a science exam, for instance, and worked to ratchet up the passing score on the high school exit exam.

Whether Romney's education agenda was a success or failure depends on whom you ask. But as for the state's upward progress in academic achievement, the numbers don't lie. Students overall improved, though a gap between the races remains.

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Our Sources

Massachusetts Department of Education, National Assessment of Educational Progress results.

Massachusetts Department of Education, Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System Spring 2007 summary.

Boston Globe, "New Governor To Face Test On Student Achievement," Sept. 5, 2006.

Worcester Telegram & Gazette, "Students' Scores Best In Nation: Gap persists in scores of whites, minorities," Oct. 20, 2005.

Interview, Matt Militello, University of Massachusetts assistant professor of educational policy, research and administration.

Interview, Robert Costrell, former Romney education adviser and chief economist.

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