Major Problems with Annual Testing, Adequate Yearly Progress, and Proposed Sanctions in the ESEA Reauthorization

The ESEA reauthorization proposals adopted by the U.S. House and Senate and now in Conference Committee contain serious problems that make the plans unfeasible and potentially harmful to efforts to improve public schools. The major problems include:

Annual Testing in Grades 3 - 8

Currently, only 15 states test all students in these grades in reading and math. Half the states would be required to double or triple the number of tests they administer. While the legislation authorizes some funding for test expansion, it is far less than current estimates of the actual cost, including development, annual administration, scoring and reporting of tests based on state standards. Commercial norm-referenced tests will not meet the federal requirements. The exams will have to be in place very quickly, even though many spokespeople for the testing industry have said they do not have the capacity to meet the legislation's timetable.

The frequency of testing should be primarily a state decision. The requirement in the 1994 authorization of ESEA to assess once each in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12 is quite adequate for general accountability purposes. Congress should simply retain the 1994 testing requirement.

Adequate Yearly Progress

The essence of this plan is that all students reach "proficient" (one level below the top) on state assessments within 10-12 years of enactment. Adequate yearly progress would be determined by a strict formula to be applied to all states regardless of their particular assessment programs or situations. Though details differ between the House and Senate, essentially a state's AYP progress would be calculated by subtracting the current percentage of students scoring at the proficient level from 100 percent, then dividing the result by 10 or 12. That result equals the additional percentage of students who must reach the proficient level each year for a school or district to maintain AYP. If all students must attain the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) proficient level, then some five to seven percent more students will have to reach that level every year in every school for ten to twelve consecutive years (see the enclosed fact sheet on feasibility).

Any school or district which receives Title I Part A funding and does not make the AYP target will face a series of interventions and sanctions. In the current versions, only test score gains count – no other factors can be used to take a school off the list. Thus, a school which pushed low-scoring students out or repeatedly retained them in grade would be rewarded if scores went up.

Currently, in almost every state in which interventions are authorized for inadequate performance or gains, the state first investigates and then takes measured steps to assist the school. Almost never are test scores used automatically and without recourse to further data. Recent research has found that year-to-year changes in school-level test scores are very volatile, far too unreliable to be the sole basis for the high-stakes decisions ESEA will require.

Based on the proposed formulas, almost every school in the nation will not make its AYP goal in some years and therefore will be labeled as needing "improvement." A majority will at some point not make AYP for two years and be labeled as needing "correction." A great many will face serious sanctions. States typically have the capacity to assist only a few schools at a time. The legislation does not provide the significant additional resources states will need to assist the large percentage of their schools which will fail to meet AYP.

Sanctions

Under the proposed legislation, the sanctions to be administered if a school does not make adequate yearly progress for three to four years must include one of the following: state takes over and runs the school; fire the principal and most of the staff; turn the school over to private management; or make the school a public charter school. None of these options is feasible on a large scale. No state or private company has the capacity to handle a rapid influx of dozens if not hundreds of schools. A growing teacher shortage makes firing large numbers of teachers an impossibility, and union agreements may tie this approach up in lengthy legal battles. "Public charter" status may well only change the school's legal structure without actually doing anything to improve its educational quality. Moreover, the track record for all these solutions is mixed - some successes, some failures. There is no large-scale or systematic evidence of consistent success in raising test scores or producing other substantive learning gains. The consequence is likely to be chaos for schools, educators, parents and children. The federal government should not impose such unproven and dangerous mandates on states, districts, schools and families.

To succeed with children in poverty, many schools need substantially more resources than the federal government will provide. The gap between the funding needed to ensure substantial improvement and the test score requirements can only set schools up for failure. It will discourage and even drive out many good teachers.

FairTest believes schools can and should improve. But the heavy-handed methods now included in the proposed legislation will not help. We therefore ask that you intervene to seek a halt to this misguided approach for improving your state's schools. You must act quickly because the conference committee will commence its work right after July 4 and may complete it by its mid-summer recess (August 3).

We are available to discuss these issues with you. Enclosed find FairTest's recommendations for alternatives to the current AYP plan. More detailed information on the problems with AYP may be found here, or we can mail material at your request.