Let Them Eat Tests

K-12 Testing

With great fanfare, President George W. Bush focused the first week of his presidency on a plan to radically increase testing and institute vouchers through a new federal education program. While the voucher scheme is given little chance of passage in Congress, the testing proposals — federally mandated test score abuse — constitute a major threat to assessment reform efforts and will particularly harm poor children.

In the name of “accountability,” Bush proposes to require every state to test all public school students in grades 3 - 8 every year in language arts and math in exchange for federal funds. Students in low-scoring schools which fail to post test-score gains over three years would be able to use their share of federal funds to attend other public or private schools. Other sanctions and rewards could be imposed on those schools. The threat of federal funding sanctions will make state tests high-stakes, even where they now are not.

In promoting his plan, Bush lifted Children’s Defense Fund founder Marion Wright Edelman’s slogan “no child will be left behind” — but in Texas, the primary model for his proposal, many students are left behind (see Examiner, ). Though scores have risen on the state’s TAAS test, similar gains usually fail to appear on other tests. Reading scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) failed to increase in Texas, while the score gap between minority students and whites increased. Scores have increased on the state test in part due to intensive test coaching instead of real teaching, but also by classifying more students as special needs (and then not including them in the results) and by greatly increasing grade retention and the dropout rate.

Texas’ dropout/pushout rates are among the highest in the nation and have risen in reaction to the state’s high-stakes testing program. Houston, whose schools Education Secretary Rod Paige headed until January, has one of the highest dropout rates among all urban districts in the nation. In fact, seven of the 20 urban districts in the nation with the worst dropout rates are now located in Texas. At the same time, the number and proportion of entering college students needing remediation has increased and SAT scores have not risen as fast as they have in other states, even when taking account increases in the number of students taking the college admissions exam. Nationally, nine of the 10 states with the highest dropout rates have graduation tests, while none of the ten states with the highest graduation rates have such a policy.

In defending his testing proposals, Bush has falsely implied that opponents of his plan are “racist” for supporting “low expectations.” But as the evidence from Texas shows, it is his testing proposals that will really harm minority and poor children. Increasingly, research is making clear that it is misleading to act as though schools by themselves can overcome the effects of poverty, even though they often can and should do more than they now do. However, many schools lack the resources to make the difference they should make. Bush’s scheme not only will fail to address these problems, it will distract attention from these more fundamental realities by focusing on testing.

Unwanted mandates
Currently, only 13 states test all students in both English and math in grades 3-8. Sixteen only test those subjects twice in that grade span. The rest fall in between, with about 10 only testing 3 of the 6 grade levels and the rest divided in various combinations. In short, half the states test less than half the amount the Bush proposal would require. Clearly, many states will have to drastically increase the amount of testing local policymakers have determined is appropriate.

This unnecessary and unhelpful federal intrusion into the process of school reform will force more states to direct resources toward turning schools into test-prep programs. Yet research has demonstrated that the states which administer the most tests and attach the highest consequences to them tend to have the weakest education programs (see Examiner, Winter 1997-98). Why should federal policy be based on states such as Alabama which do the worst and are less likely to show improvement?

Several independent studies have found that most state tests fail to measure the higher learning standards on which they claim to be based. Only a handful of states meet the mandate of the federal Title I program to use multiple measures. (Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA, is the major federal public school support program, and it now includes state testing and accountability elements; see Examiner, .) States with the most testing are also most likely to have the weakest, lowest-level exams. Rather than have states do assessment properly and fine-tune Title I, the Bush administration will push for more testing, with a probably further weakening of the quality of exams as another consequence.

The Bush administration claims it is necessary to assess each student’s progress annually to determine who is falling behind. However, this does not require standardized tests. Evaluating each child’s progress should be a school and district process, perhaps with some state oversight, as the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education recommends in its proposal for an authentic assessment system.

Given the inadequacy of most exams, more testing will hurt, not help or even be neutral. As the outgoing chair of the House Education Committee, Bill Goodling, said, “If more testing were the answer to the problems in our schools, testing would have solved them a long time ago.”

Under the Bush plan, an expanded NAEP — testing reading and math every year in grades 4 and 8— would be used to evaluate state progress, thereby making NAEP a test worth teaching to. This would undermine NAEP’s use as a neutral monitor. If states align their tests to NAEP, schools will therefore indirectly align their curriculum to NAEP, bringing a national curriculum in the back door without any real public discussion.

The Bush scheme also proposes to increase testing while reducing other federal regulations, many of which provide important safeguards for vulnerable students. Implicitly, the Bush plan says that the only accountability needed is found in test scores. There is simply no good evidence to support the assumption that as long as scores go up, education is better for all.

Fighting Back
Though the proposal existed only as “talking points” when it was unveiled, the Bush Administration hopes that detailed legislation can be passed by June. Bush’s proposal will become intertwined with Congressional reauthorization of ESEA.

Assessment reformers, many civil rights activists and some educators have begun collaborating to stop the Bush proposal. FairTest initiated and led a coalition which stopped George H.W. Bush’s national testing plan and also helped stop Bill Clinton’s similar effort. However, “W’s” plan would have the federal government work through mandates on the states rather than have one national test, making it appear less of a federal intrusion and potentially weakening opposition among “local control” Republicans. Nonetheless, the mandate which fails to answer any real-world problem or need; the inevitable distortions of curriculum and instruction, particularly for low-income and minority-group students; and the distraction from real improvement are all issues which will be brought to Congress.

Other bills on education accountability have been introduced, including one in the Senate by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and one in the House by Democrats George Miller and Dale Kildee. Neither would expand testing, but both would affect how tests are used for accountability purposes.