ESEA Controversies Continue

K-12 Testing

Five U.S. Senators have sponsored legislation to somewhat reduce testing burdens required by the new federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The proposal would allow states and districts that are significantly closing test scores gaps or making faster than required overall progress to apply for a waiver from the mandate to test every student in grades 3-8 every year in reading and math starting in 2005-06. Those receiving waivers would still have to test once in each of three grade spans. While the legislation is not expected to move forward this year and is quite limited in impact, it represents the first Congressional response to the overuse and misuse of tests in ESEA.


The most visible controversy during the first year of ESEA implementation has involved student transfers. According to the new law, students attending schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for two consecutive years on state assessments in reading and math must be allowed to move to other schools in their district that have made AYP. Districts must use a portion of their ESEA funds to pay for transportation. Nearly ten percent of US schools were on an initial list of those required to offer transfers (see Examiner, Summer 2002).


Many problems have arisen from the requirement, including: lack of seats to which students could transfer; late notification to families; lack of interest among parents in moving their children; conflicts with court desegregation orders; and award-winning schools appearing on the “failure” list. As a result, few students transferred this year. One estimate suggested that fewer than five percent of eligible students ended up shifting schools.


Los Angeles has nearly 230,000 children eligible to transfer, but claimed to have only 100 seats available. In metropolitan Atlanta, fewer than 500 out of 70,000 eligible students moved. In many districts, the schools that were making AYP were already full.


Some parents blamed obstacles created by local education officials, including late notification. Milwaukee parents at 63 schools received notification of their eligibility for transfer in September, a week after the start of school.


School departments in turn criticized late notification of federal requirements as well as the lack of space in higher-scoring schools. Milwaukee officials, for example, said they did not receive a list of low-scoring schools from the state until early August.


Many small and rural districts have only one school for each grade level, and the law does not require inter-district transfers. Few districts appear eager to take low-scoring students who may drag down average assessment results, putting receiving schools at risk of being labeled “failing.”


The turmoil has prompted many state and district officials to seek ways to drop schools from the transfer requirement list. For example, Georgia reduced the number of metropolitan Atlanta schools on the list from 181 to 113 for this year. Connecticut decided to review its initial list of 28 “failing” schools, with the result that it has no schools on the transfer list this year. Ohio’s initial list was full of errors and was subsequently cut in half.


Even when given an option, parents often did not take it. In Washington, DC, 10,000 letters announcing the ability to transfer netted 209 parental requests to change schools. In the Chicago suburb of Hillcrest, only two of 500 students moved, though many spaces were available. Parents commonly reported that they liked their local school, citing the staff, friendships and community their children have, siblings in the same building, or specific programs such as bilingual education.


Bruce Wilson, a black, middle class Chicago parent and PTA activist explained, “I think parents see through the illusion and the hype... [M]ost parents have evaluated their child’s school based on factors beyond test scores, based on a wide range of needs.” He added, “If the point is to ‘leave no child behind,’ then who’s there for the children being left behind in failing schools?”


Such parental opinions appear to run counter to the emphasis on testable academic skills promoted by many school “reformers,” illustrating research that found parents expect a wide range of experiences and outcomes from schools, not only academics. In addition, a recent research summary, “Mobility and the Achievement Gap,” reinforces the well-supported conclusion that higher rates of student mobility leads to lower student achievement.


ESEA also ran afoul of some federal desegregation requirements. For example, Georgia’s Richmond County schools maintained that its court order prohibits student transfers that disrupt racial balances. The U.S. Department of Education argued that the district must follow ESEA and told the schools to go to court to change the desegregation order.


A mini-scandal developed when some federally-designated “Blue Ribbon” schools, such as the Park School in Maryland, ended up on the ESEA “failing” list. Despite the latter designation, more parents wanted to transfer their children into the Park than move them elsewhere. As a result of cases like this, the Department of Education is revising its procedures for selecting winning schools to boost the emphasis on test scores.


Students attending schools that have not made AYP for three consecutive years are supposed to have access to tutoring paid for by a share of their school’s ESEA Title I funds. States are to create a list of approved providers. But, the U.S. Department of Education has decreed that states cannot mandate that tutors meet the same standards required of public school teachers. ESEA states that by the end of 2005-06, all teachers must be “highly qualified,” which means having a Bachelor’s degree and passing a certification test.


Schools At Risk
Experts continued to question the reasonableness of the AYP requirements. Robert Linn, one of the nation’s pre-eminent measurement experts, reported that because the “proficient” level in most states is set so high, few schools will make AYP targets. ESEA mandates that almost all students reach the proficient level on state assessments by 2014.


Under ESEA, schools in most states will need to have an additional 4-6 percent of some or all student groups reach proficient each year, or they will fail to make AYP and suffer sanctions. Linn and his colleagues found that only three states posted even a one percent per year increase on National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests from 1992 to 1998.


Demographic subgroups – racial minority, low-income, special needs, and limited English proficient students – must also each make AYP. Linn et al. confirmed earlier studies finding that the requirement for sub-group AYP will make more schools vulnerable to being labeled “failures” (see Examiner, Spring 2002, Summer 2001).


The education reform journal Rethinking Schools noted that effective bilingual programs are unlikely to meet AYP requirements and are therefore at risk of being shut down since many students in those programs are still learning English and are not likely to show rapid score gains on tests in English.


The difficulty of making AYP is leading more states to consider lowering the score that denotes proficient. California Secretary of Education Kerry Mazzoni said, “We’re never going to be able to meet the 100% mark.” Colorado and Louisiana recently re-labeled their levels, in effect creating a lesser definition of “proficient” for meeting federal requirements while retaining a more stringent definition for local use. Connecticut earlier adopted a new “proficient” level (see Examiner, Summer 2002). Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education denounced these moves in a letter to state education superintendents.


Funding Fears
The lack of adequate funding to markedly improve schools angers many educators and some policymakers. Liberal Democrats, including key architects of ESEA, have criticized President Bush for proposing a budget that included no increase in Title I funding, though billions of additional dollars in federal funding were authorized by ESEA. While Democrats will push for more money, federal deficits will make substantial increases difficult to attain. Most states, meanwhile, are cutting their educational budgets, which means that even fewer schools serving low-income students will have the resources needed to make major improvements.


States also question whether they can develop the capacity to meet the federal requirement to assist all schools and districts that fail to make AYP. Massachusetts, for example, has intervened in very few schools over the past few years, but hundreds may soon be on the ESEA list. While federal money can be spent on developing state capacity to provide help, the funding is unlikely to come close to meeting the need.


Cleveland, Ohio, schools research director Peter Robertson summarized the federal funding situation: “What you are doing is systematically taking the rug out from under these schools.” Robertson also worried about principals leaving due to the stress of the accountability provisions. Others have pointed to a growing exodus of teachers spurred by the increased testing requirements (see Texas article, p. 10).


Some critics argue that the real intent of many of the law’s supporters is to make schools fall short of AYP, paving the way for vouchers. In this scenario, failure by most schools to make AYP would constitute evidence that public schools cannot improve, and privatization would be presented as the answer. Others charge that many proponents of test-based “reform” have no real interest in providing a high-quality education for all students, as evidenced by the failure to appropriate needed funds. Instead, federally mandated testing will simply serve to rank and sort students and schools as standardized exams have historically done. Yet other critics denounce the confusion of test score gains with real learning, arguing that an emphasis on boosting scores actually will deprive low-income students of more important learning opportunities.


• The ESEA revision legislation is S. 2954 available through
• A strong article on the impact of ESEA on bilingual students is in the Fall 2002 Rethinking Schools, at
• “Mobility and the Achievement Gap,” Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa, Hoover Digest 2002, No. 3;
• The Linn et al. study is at, Report 567
• For more details on ESEA provisions and consequences, visit