National Testing Plan Faces Challenges

K-12 Testing

A massive expansion of mandated testing plus harsh sanctions for schools which fail to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) on the tests is expected to pass Congress this fall. The conference committee appointed to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is expected to make major changes in the AYP provisions because sev-eral researchers concluded that most schools in the U.S. would be labeled as failures under either the House or Senate versions (see Examiner, Winter 2000-01, Spring 2001).


ESEA is the primary law providing federal assistance to schools, largely for remedial education under Title I of the Act.


Though both houses passed a requirement, pushed hard by President Bush, that every state must test every child every year in reading and math in grades 3-8 (which only 15 states now do), a growing number of governors have begun to object to this provision. Both versions agree on a set of sanctions to be imposed, but differ on the determination of AYP that would trigger the sanctions.


Both versions require test results to be reported publicly at the school, district and state levels disaggregated by race, low-income, limited English proficiency and special needs status. The House bill requires all students to reach the “proficient” level on state tests within 12 years, exempting only pupils with severe special needs. Every school and district in the nation, as well as the specified sub-populations within each school and district, will have to make one-twelfth of the progress toward proficiency each year. If a school or district that receives federal Title I Part A funding fails to make adequate progress, it will face interventions and then sanctions. The Senate version differs primarily in that it has a slower, one percent per year test score progress requirement for the subgroups, though its goal for all students becoming “proficient” is only 10 years.


The debate over the issue has created strange bedfellows. A mix of conservatives and corporate leaders, who want “tough tests,” and some civil rights groups, which want a stronger focus on the progress of low-income and minority group students, pushed hard for the House version.


Increasingly, teacher, administrator and parent groups, state education leaders, other civil rights groups, and even a few governors, who believe the legislation will have harmful consequences, have argued for less stringent AYP requirements and changes in the sanctions (see below on NEA).


FairTest Position
FairTest shared its concerns and recommendations in a set of fact sheets delivered to all members of the congressional conference committee. The materials conclude:


• the legislation will impose far too much testing;
• the use of tests alone to impose sanctions violates guidelines for proper test use and will cause substantial damage to students and schools; and
• the sanctions are both unworkable and dangerous.


The AYP formulas will misleadingly label most schools as “failures” because they will not be able to make the required score goals. While each state has its own definition of “proficient” (and would be rewarded for lowering that standard), if the levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are used an additional six to eight percent more students would have to reach “proficient” each year for a decade – a rate of test score gains never attained anywhere. Additionally, score gains are so variable at the school level that the results lack reliability, making identification of failing schools similar to a lottery (see article, p. 6).


Severe sanctions would affect Title I schools after three to four years of not making AYP. A district would have to impose one of the following forms of “reconstitution” on a “failing” school, none of which have evidence to show they would succeed:


• replacing the teachers and administrators (if there are many schools, where are the new educators to come from, or are they supposed to shuffle from school to school?);
• turning the school over to private management ( there are only a few hundred privately managed public schools in the country, and they have had mixed results);
• making the school a public charter (an approach which also has had mixed results); or
• state takeover (there are few such cases, and they have not succeeded in producing academic improvement).


One recent review of “reconstituted” schools found almost no examples of success, aside from a few schools in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Thus, the federal government would be mandating the use of inadequate measures (tests) to impose actions that have almost no promise of success (reconstitution). The real results are more likely to be administrative chaos, teachers fleeing schools that serve low-income students, and education reduced to test preparation.


Once researchers showed that under either AYP formula most schools would be labeled, the conference committee and the White House began to hunt for an alternative approach. By August, consensus seemed to be developing on use of the Texas model in which each school or district would have a specified percentage of all students and of the sub-groups reach a particular level (probably proficient) on the state assessment. Both the percentage of students meeting the goal and the required level of difficulty of the test would be raised over the years. Possible formulas were being tested by Congressional researchers.


Damage Control
Clearly, there are many U.S. schools from which students emerge with too little know-ledge. The reasons include the failure of the nation to meet the basic needs of many children, such as housing, food, and health care; generally inadequate funding for schools which serve low-income children; low expectations for some students; and a too-strong focus on standardized testing. With such a range of causes, not only will test-based “reform” not succeed in generating sustained, strong improvement, it will distract attention from addressing underlying needs and even promote more damage through test-based “accountability.”


Unfortunately, the legislation has passed both houses, leaving only limited space for changes. It is unlikely that the assessment and accountability provisions will be completely re-written. Thus, FairTest submitted proposals to minimize the damage and take initial steps toward a better concept of federal assistance for school improvement. The suggested “minimum revisions” include:


• dropping the increased annual testing requirements, the requirement that a school test 95 percent of its students to qualify for AYP, the use of tests as a sole means of evaluating schools, and the currently-proposed sanctions;
• funding development of local, classroom-based assessments, and including those results along with such data as dropouts and retention in reporting school progress and triggering any interventions;
• determining whether every school has the resources to provide a quality education, and providing them if not.
Parents, educators, civil rights activists and others should act while there is still time to persuade the conference committee to make changes.
• More detailed information is on the web at - click on national testing under “what’s new” on the right side of the screen.
• Reconstitution study is at, click on publications.
• House and Senate versions of ESEA are at - in search box , type in HR1. On the resulting screen, versions 3 and 5, the “engrossed” versions, are the House and Senate bills before the conference committee.