Major Changes in Chapter 1 Testing Are in the Offing
Congress is set to make major changes in the way students are tested under the largest federal education program, and the repercussions could be extensive.
Lawmakers are considering the changes in Chapter 1, which funds remedial help for millions of low-achieving youngsters, as part of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The changes are intended to end the program's reliance on multiple-choice tests for measuring the performance of children and schools, and to force reforms in schools whose Chapter 1 students are not making progress.
Critics have charged that a steady diet of standardized tests has led to an impoverished curriculum, and that low standards have allowed failing programs to continue operating unimproved.
The new legislation would require states, schools, and teachers to hold Chapter 1 students to the same high academic standards as their more advantaged peers.
The Goals 2000: Educate America Act also encourages states to develop new tests and high standards for what students should know and be able to do.
But because Chapter 1 is much larger, many view it as the engine that will drive widespread changes in student assessment. Indeed, by requiring states to set benchmarks for Chapter 1, the legislation would effectively force them to participate in the Goals 2000 standards-setting effort.
"I think it's going to mean the biggest assessment-development activity in the history of America,'' predicted Ramsay Selden, the director of the state education assessment center at the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The House passed its reauthorization bill last spring, and the Senate began floor consideration of a companion bill last week. They are not identical, but the bills outline similar visions of how Chapter 1 testing should change.
As part of their application for funding under Chapter 1--which will revert to its old name, Title I--states would have to submit plans to the U.S. Secretary of Education that include standards and assessments mirroring those used for all students in a state. At a minimum, states would have to measure performance in mathematics and reading or language arts.
Each state would have to describe three levels of student performance on the new tests.
States would determine the "adequate yearly progress'' that a district's Chapter 1 students must make toward the "advanced'' standard. Districts that failed to meet targets for several years would be identified as needing improvement. Eventually, states would have to take "corrective action.''
The legislation allows states to determine what action to take, although it lists as possible sanctions such drastic moves as allowing students to transfer to another district or replacing personnel.
Districts would have to devise similar definitions of "adequate yearly progress'' and corrective actions for schools.
The current assessment rules, added to Chapter 1 in 1988, also require low-achieving schools to enter a "program improvement'' process, and allows states to intervene. However, while the rules encourage the use of multiple assessments, they require standardized tests, and the minimum national standard is based on them.
This has given those tests substantial influence. On the other hand, the low minimum standards set by most states have allowed schools to escape program improvement if their Chapter 1 students show any progress at all.
"Norm-referenced testing was real easy,'' said Paul H. Koehler, the assistant superintendent of the Peoria Unified School District, just outside Phoenix. "But it also was not the right thing to do.''
For the first time, said Ed Reidy, the associate commissioner of education in Kentucky, "we'll be able to integrate our school-reform efforts across all kids and not have to have a whole separate set of procedures for one group of students.''
But others expressed concern, particularly about the bills' lack of specificity. Some of these concerns could be resolved when the Education Department issues regulations for the program. But the weakness of the current regulations does not give observers great confidence.
"The definition of the kind of assessments the Congress wants is extremely vague,'' said Monty Neill, the associate director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a watchdog group.
"What the law has done is basically left the door wide open for what amount to marginal improvements,'' he said. "Our fear is that, for a number of reasons, that's mostly what will end up happening in the states.''
For example, both bills would require that the new state assessments consist of "multiple measures'' rather than a single test. The House also requires that the measures be "up-to-date,'' to encourage the use of portfolios and other new forms of assessment.
Little Guidance for Schools
Advocates fear such vague terms could produce only minimal changes, particularly because states would be required to provide scores for individual students.
Performance assessments and portfolios are more costly and burdensome to administer than multiple-choice tests. And experts do not have good answers to many of the technical, practical, equity, and cost questions posed by their use for accountability purposes.
In addition, the legislation does not provide much guidance for schools and districts.
It would require districts to describe what assessments, "if any,'' they would use to supplement state tests. The Senate specifies that local assessments be "selected and administered by teachers'' and integrated with the instructional program.
"But it is not self-evident from reading the legislation exactly what districts have to do,'' complained Phyllis McClure, an independent consultant on education and equity issues.
"In fact, to do this right,'' she argued, "you need two kinds of assessments. You need a state one for accountability purposes, and then you need another one that can report individual scores and be used at the classroom and school levels for guiding teaching and learning.''
Some observers fear that the new legislation would allow districts to abandon standardized tests without having anything adequate to replace them with.
Carlos Martinez, the supervisor of evaluation for the Hillsborough County school district in Tampa, Fla., is particularly concerned that Congress apparently will not require testing of children when they first enter the Chapter 1 program or at any time before grade 3.
This could create an "accountability void'' in early childhood, he said.
A Worrisome Transition
Michael H. Kean, a vice president for C.T.B. MacMillan/McGraw Hill, a test publisher, said districts should assess each child annually.
"The limited scope and frequency of assessment called for in the proposal,'' he claimed, "creates the prospect for less information being available about individual Title I students than exists today.''
Educators are also concerned that states and districts will not have enough money to develop the new assessments. And they worry about the quality of the assessments states will use while making the transition to the new system.
The House bill would give states three years, and the Senate bill four years, to develop new assessments. After that, the Secretary could require them to adopt standards and assessments from a state whose plan was approved.
The House bill would essentially allow states to use whatever tests they want during the transition. On the Senate side, advocates are hoping to push through an amendment to limit the amount of weight that could be given to measures that had not yet been validated.
Dianne Brown, the director of testing and assessment for the American Psychological Association, said states should be able to try out new assessments and work on improving them over time.
"But those shouldn't be relied upon for decisionmaking purposes until you know that they're reliable and valid,'' she argued.
Proposed Assessment Requirements:
- Standards and assessments must be as challenging and of the same high quality as those used for all children.
- The House would require content standards in "core academic subjects,'' the Senate in at least math and reading or language arts.
- Each state would have to describe several performance levels for students: "proficient,'' "advanced,'' and "below proficient'' (termed "partially proficient'' in the Senate bill).
- The House would also require states to develop opportunity-to-learn standards that address the quality of education children receive.
- States would define what constitutes "adequate yearly progress'' for a district or school toward enabling all children to meet the "advanced'' standards, rewarding districts that did well and taking corrective action against those that failed to meet their target after several years.
- The state assessments must be annual and aligned with a state's content and performance standards; include multiple measures; and be used for purposes for which they are "valid and reliable and consistent'' with nationally recognized standards. They must provide individual student scores.
- The House would require states to administer the assessments at some point in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. The Senate would require at least one assessment in one grade in each school every year.
- The House would require that the assessments include students with disabilities and limited English proficiency "to the extent practicable,'' mandating foreign-language assessments and accommodations for disabled students, except for the severely cognitively impaired. The Senate would require states to include "all students with diverse learning needs.''
- Under the House plan, the assessments must provide disaggregated results within each state, district, and school by: gender, major racial and ethnic groups, English-proficiency status, and income level. The Senate bill would also require separate results for disabled students and other "educationally meaningful categories.''
- Under the House plan, state can use standards and assessments developed and adopted under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, modifying them if necessary. The Senate would allow states to use "an accountability system for all children that in the Secretary's judgment is as rigorous as the system required'' for the remedial program.