Stimulus Funding Pushes ESEA/NCLB Reauthorization Aside

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, July 2009

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has stalled, with most observers agreeing it will be 2010 before there is significant Congressional action. Instead, attention has focused on the use of education stimulus funds, particularly the "four assurances" that states will have to provide to obtain the second portion of new federal aid and the $5 billion allocated to the "Race to the Top" (see Examiner, March 2009; ). (No Child Left Behind is the current name of ESEA.) The "assurances" could either produce more intense teaching to standardized tests, or empower states to substantively overhaul their assessment systems.

In mid-to-late July, the Department of Education is expected to release rules governing applications for stimulus funds. Among the key issues in how stimulus funding is to be used:

Standards and tests. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan strongly supports joint state efforts to write new standards, and he recently committed $350 million to create new assessments based on those standards (see "National Standards," this issue). While Duncan's speeches have been vague, Department of Education staffers have indicated they could respond favorably if states or consortia of states came forward with proposals to develop more comprehensive local and state assessment systems. These could prioritize performance assessment, include classroom- and school-based evidence of student learning, promote formative assessments, and build in extensive professional learning.

Activists and organizations need to push their states to move in this direction. In their 2007 draft reauthorization of ESEA, House Education Committee Chair George Miller and Representative Buck McKeon, then the Republican leader of the committee, proposed a pilot program for fifteen states to develop such balanced systems. (For why mixed systems of local and state assessments are necessary, see ; and .)

Highly qualified teachers. Sec. Duncan has focused on using funds to encourage teachers to teach in low-scoring schools and to promote "incentive" pay for teachers' performance, which could include student test score gains. This would certainly increase teaching to the test.


Payment for results has a poor track record. In "The Perils of Quantitative Performance Assessment," his chapter in Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability, Richard Rothstein shows how this approach has led to corruption and gaming the system in a variety of fields, including medical care. He warns it would be a dangerous step for education. In the same book, Scott Adams and John Heywood demonstrate that pay for performance is not common in other professions, rebutting claims by Duncan and Eli Broad of the pro-testing Broad Foundation that pay for performance is the rule in most fields. Professor Sam Bowles analyzed 51 separate studies. The results indicate "that paying for performance can actually reduce motivation and overall productivity," according to BNET1.


Opponents of payment for test scores have been pressuring the Administration and Congress to ensure no such provisions are included in the next ESEA. A proposal in the 2007 Miller-McKeon draft bill to allow payment for scores helped sink that effort.



Restructuring schools.  Sec. Duncan has called for reconstituting 5000 schools that have not made "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) for five years or more. He also said that schools making progress would not face closure. However, many schools making progress are not making AYP. The schools under discussion are disproportionately in big cities or rural areas and serve low-income children of color. Research has shown that closing and reopening schools does not consistently or sustainably improve academic performance. Duncan has repeatedly pointed to supposed successes in Chicago. But in some of these cases the student body changed significantly, and other reconstituted schools have only been in existence a couple of years, too little time to know if they will succeed.

Data. The education portion of the stimulus law calls for accumulating data to track students all through school and linking the data back to their teachers. Currently, “data” mostly means test scores. This will intensify teaching to the test as any teacher in a tested subject is put at risk if scores are not high enough or rising fast enough. While teachers in untested subjects would be off the hook, their schools and administrators would not be.

This proposal reinforces the current mantra that schools should be "data-driven." FairTest Board member Deborah Meier points out that good teachers are "data-informed." They make decisions using data; the data do not make the decisions. NCLB is a prime example of the danger of relying on data to make formulaic decisions.


Of course, good data is important. But advocates should insist on developing rich sources of information, including opportunity to learn, improvement efforts and successes, and multiple sources of evidence of student learning. (Under Duncan, Chicago began to gather information on factors such as school climate.) This broader definition of data is included in the Forum on Educational Accountability's plan to overhaul NCLB, Empowering Schools and Improving Learning (see story, this issue). Advocates also must press to ensure that actions are not automatically determined by a simplistic application of test score data.

Taken as a whole, implementation of the “assurances” could lead to intensified testing and more extensive high-stakes uses of the scores. FairTest encourages activists to point out the dangers, sound the alarm when things are going awry, and work at the state and national levels to move these proposals in as progressive a direction as possible. Despite danger signs, much remains possible.