Test Changes for Chapter 1 Are Predicted
With Congress poised to begin work on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, most observers predict lawmakers will make major changes in the way Chapter 1 students are tested and in the way the success or failure of individual Chapter 1 programs is evaluated.
Indeed, there is a firm consensus among educators and policymakers that the current system for assessing Chapter 1 schools and spurring improvement in low-performing programs is deeply flawed.
But some critics of the Clinton Administration's proposal for the compensatory-education program--which calls for testing students less often and with new "performance-based'' tests--say it is unrealistic and too vague.
Meanwhile, test publishers, who have a portion of their livelihoods at stake, are pressing for a longer transition time between scrapping the old approach to testing and imposing a new one.
Seeking an Alternative
Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, who is the key architect of the Administration proposal, said the plan is guided by two principles: that assessment should be based on what is taught and that too much of what is currently taught is driven by testing.
"The present standardized, norm-referenced tests that are used most widely do not'' reflect the curriculum, he said, unless Chapter 1 teachers use their testing instruments as teaching guides--a practice that critics say leads to programs heavy on rote learning.
"What we're looking at is how well the school is doing in helping all kids and, in particular, poor kids, toward improvement,'' Mr. Smith said. "We would expect to see a variety of different [testing] formats used by states.''
Under the Administration's proposal, states would be required to submit plans outlining how they would improve student learning through Chapter 1. The plans are to explain how each state would assess student performance, and how states would link those assessments to performance standards and curriculum frameworks.
This provision would effectively demand that states participate in the standards-setting effort envisioned in the Administration's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act.'' (See Education Week, Aug. 4, 1993.)
School districts would forward similar plans to state agencies.
States could use a variety of measures, including norm-referenced tests. While the use of multiple measures would be encouraged, states are expected to eventually move to performance-based tests that are tied to the curriculum.
The plan would forbid testing children before the 3rd grade, and it calls for testing all students in selected grades rather than testing all Chapter 1 students each year.
Schools would be required to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress'' in "enabling all children to meet the state's 'proficient' and 'advanced' performance standards,'' with "adequate yearly progress'' defined by state officials.
Schools that did not improve could be sanctioned in many ways, from replacing the teaching staff to transferring students.
While broader in scope and based on a new type of test, the proposed system is somewhat similar in spirit to the current "program improvement'' process, which was inserted into the law in 1988.
Currently, all Chapter 1 students take standardized tests. Although schools are encouraged to set other standards as well, effectively only schools whose Chapter 1 students' average scores on standardized tests actually decline are required to submit program-improvement plans. Schools that fail to improve after two years can face intervention by state officials.
This system has been roundly criticized for setting too low a standard and spurring educators to focus their efforts too narrowly on improving test scores. (See Education Week, March 25, 1992.)
"It's based, first, on an assessment that doesn't measure what kids are learning in school, and two, it doesn't meet the high stan\dards we are encouraging,'' Mr. Smith said.
Critics note that schools can easily "test out'' of the process when their students' scores improve slightly, and schools often do so without making improvements. Conversely, a statistical fluke can target a school for improvement.
While praising the Administration's plan to move away from standardized tests, some advocates and officials say the proposal is too vague and centers on a new kind of test that is untried.
Theory and Reality
"I tend to agree that we need to look at multiple measures of testing and different ways of assessing students,'' said Jessie R. Montano, the supervisor of special programs for the Minnesota Department of Education and the president of the National Association of State Directors of Compensatory Education.
"The thing is is that there's theory and there's reality, and the reality is there isn't any state right now that is in any way, shape, or form ready for that,'' she said.
Minnesota has appointed a committee to address assessment issues, she said, but the Administration's proposal offers little guidance for its efforts.
"What does it mean in terms of implementation? We don't know. We have absolutely no idea,'' Ms. Montano said.
"I think politically, [policymakers] are ready; whether they're technically ready is another question,'' said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. "There's going to be a certain amount of inevitable confusion and mismatch of calendars until the process begins to work over the long run.''
Phyllis McClure, the director of policy and information for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a member of the Independent Commission on Chapter 1, said the proposal is unclear about how many students should be tested and how often.
"One of the purposes of the reauthorization of this law is to leave no doubt what it is the law intends,'' Ms. McClure said. "The law at least ought to have some criteria for how the department would judge the state plans.''
"If you're talking about all kids mastering some standards, how can you prescribe less testing than in previous years?'' asked Michael H. Kean, the vice president for public and governmental affairs for C.T.B. MacMillan/McGraw-Hill, a test publisher.
Ms. McClure also noted that, because the Administration is seeking to shift the emphasis from assessing student performance to evaluating school performance, the bill would result in much less specific data on student achievement. She asserted that it is important to report student achievement by income level, English proficiency, gender, disability, and race.
Some critics also fear that a lack of specific data could undermine political support for the program, and also make it difficult for parents and others to monitor their schools.
"At the local level, parents are not going to stand for the absence of data,'' Mr. Kean said.
But some education lobbyists praise the proposal for allowing school districts to work with states in developing assessment plans.
"I think states and local [districts] are capable of coming up with assessment plans without having it spelled out in detail,'' said Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal relations at the National School Boards Association.
Mr. Smith notes that many states have already begun developing educational standards and new forms of assessment, but acknowledged that most such efforts are in the early stages. He predicted a flurry of activity over the next three to four years as states, educators, testing companies, and other experts work to make performance assessments statistically valid.
The current norm-referenced tests "really aren't valid at all ... and that really is the bottom line,'' Mr. Smith said.
However, while most educators agree that the current system is not working well, critics note that the Administration's bill does not spell out how programs and students should be evaluated as the new testing system is phased in. Indeed, it skirts the issue by asking states to seek approval from the Secretary of Education for the testing measures of their choice.
For their part, test publishers are urging that states be given more than the proposed two years to develop their assessment measures.
States and the test publishers, who have pledged to work on the development of multiple Chapter 1 measures, including performance-based assessments, would have time to address issues of bias and validity, Mr. Kean said.
"I don't think any of the test publishers see business as usual,'' Mr. Kean said. "They'll work with states, and, if the states don't want norms, they won't give them norms. We would be foolish to create a product that does not meet the needs of our customers.''
While the House Education and Labor Committee is ready to mark up its reauthorization bill, Congressional aides declined to comment on what testing provisions lawmakers are likely to endorse.
John F. Jennings, the education counsel for the House panel , said their bill will likely mirror the Administration's proposal but get "into a little bit more detail.''