Few States Are Now In Line With Bush Testing Plan
President Bush's drumbeat for testing and accountability in education could require more than half the states to greatly expand their testing programs and spell major changes for the federal assessment now used to gauge student progress nationally.
Some educators embraced Mr. Bush's school proposals announced last week, including annual testing in grades 3-8, while others worried about an avalanche of assessments.
"I see it really as an extension of what's already been put in place," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, which advocates high standards for all students, and an assistant education secretary under former President George Bush. "It's very much a part of the same continuum."
States have spent most of the past decade working to set academic standards, produce tests linked to those standards, and hold schools and districts accountable for results—actions spurred in part by requirements under the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students.
But the Bush proposal ups the ante. Under proposed changes to Title I, states would have to test students in reading and math each year in grades 3-8. Schools would be judged based on the academic progress of their low-income students and not just that of their overall student populations. And students would have a mandated right to transfer out of failing schools to other public schools, if the school had not improved after two years.
After three years, students could use some Title I money to transfer to a higher-performing public or private school or to receive supplemental services from a provider of their choice.
President Bush is also proposing financial rewards for schools and states that make significant progress in closing the achievement gap between students of different racial and economic groups. Progress on state tests would be confirmed by expanding the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program, to assess a sample of 4th and 8th graders in each state in reading and mathematics every year.
Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, described the testing and accountability proposals as "the most extensive anyone has yet proposed in a major federal program."
A Sense of Progress
Some educators last week welcomed the call for annual testing, saying it would provide a better gauge of student progress and more useful information for teachers and schools, such as the ability to pinpoint teachers' strengths and weaknesses.
"You need to be able to assess students every year because of the delivery of your instructional services," said John L. Ruis, the superintendent of the 10,000- student Nassau district in Florida. "I don't know how else you'd do it if you didn't test the students."
"I like the idea of annual assessments because it allows you to follow the same children over time, and to really get a sense of how much progress is being made in their achievement," concurred Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the 63,600-student Boston schools.
But Mr. Payzant, a former assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration, said he worried that the cost to states of writing such tests "could result in a backing away" from more rigorous, curriculum-driven exams.
"The big question mark to me about this is how testing every kid every year would affect our own state assessment system, which is measuring at a much higher level," said Robert F. Sexton, the director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky citizens' group. His state uses a mix of multiple-choice, short-answer, extended-response, and portfolio exams.
H. Gene Wilhoit, Kentucky's education commissioner, said the Bush plan might force the elimination of tests in other subjects.
Others said they had nothing against the annual testing of students, as long as it didn't result in excessive testing and was not used as the sole measure of student or school performance.
"From a suburban superintendent's standpoint, the notion of some form of accountability testing each year I don't find particularly troublesome," said Edgar B. Hatrick, the superintendent of the 32,000-student Loudoun County schools in Virginia, "unless it is in addition to the testing already being done."
In Chicago, where students and schools already face penalties based on results from the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a commercially prepared, norm-referenced test, education activist Julie Woestehoff expressed more serious reservations. "Our concern is the overemphasis on testing, and the misconception that test scores hold schools accountable," said the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education. "People really have to refocus on teaching and learning, rather than testing."
"Bush is asking for so much testing that he's forcing people to think about the proper use of tests," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center for Education Policy and a former education aide to House Democrats. "So we could have a good debate, I hope, on how should these tests be used, and that would be the best thing."
Looking for Flexibility
State reactions last week depended, in part, on what each state already has in place. Fifteen states now test students in grades 3-8 in reading and math. But of those, only seven use a criterion-referenced test, meaning it is aligned with the state's standards. Six rely primarily on norm-referenced, off-the-shelf exams that are intended to compare the performance of students against others nationally. And two states use a combination of tests that differ by grade level.
In South Carolina, which already tests students in grades 3-8 in reading and math, officials lauded Mr. Bush's plan. "We're completely comfortable with it," said Jim Foster, a state education department spokesman. "Our education accountability efforts match up well with Bush's system."
Massachusetts also tests students in grades 3-8, but it does not test in reading and math in each grade. "It certainly would not be as difficult a burden for us as it will be for many other states," said state Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll. But, he added, the state would be looking for some flexibility.
"Could we satisfy the reading requirement through our social studies exam, which requires a good deal of reading?" he said. "Could we satisfy some of the math testing requirements through our science testing?"
And in Indiana, which currently tests students in grades 3, 6, 8, and 10, state Superintendent Suellen Reed worried about Washington mandating policies without paying for them. "We're in a position right now of having to stretch our budget to cover our own priorities," she said.
Under Mr. Bush's proposal, federal money would help cover the costs of creating the assessments, but the administration has not yet cited a specific amount. States would have three years after the plan was enacted to implement the tests, and the states that did so before the end of the second year would be eligible for a one-time financial bonus.
Mr. Ambach predicted that one of the major deliberations in Congress would center on whether a combination of state and local testing could satisfy the president's objectives, "so that we're not put in a test-overload mode." He also said the speed with which states would be required to write the tests could have a major impact on test quality.
Most states, meanwhile, have yet to meet the existing testing and accountability requirements under the federal Title I program, which were supposed to be in place this school year. And educators said last week it was unclear how Mr. Bush's plans would mesh with those rules.
"A lot of states have a long way to go to meet their final assessment responsibilities," said William L. Taylor, the acting chairman of the Washington-based Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a private watchdog group. "Testing is necessary, but right now, we ought to be concentrating on getting the kinds of assessments that we can have some confidence in, rather than engaging in a kind of testing mania."
But Frank H. Shafroth, the director of state-federal relations for the National Governors' Association, said, "I don't think any of the questions that people are raising about assessment are in any way decided upon yet." He said Mr. Bush has expressed strong interest in working with governors and lawmakers, on a bipartisan basis, to flesh out his proposals.
At a briefing last week, a senior administration official said states would be asked to build on their existing accountability systems, but indicated there was room for flexibility about testing.
"The requirement here is not one-size-fits-all," said the official. Instead, he suggested, states should be able to answer parents' questions about whether students are making annual progress.
'All For It'
Reactions to the president's accountability proposals were similarly mixed. Some described the plan as more stringent than the accountability mechanisms under current law, while others described it as weak. Many drew the line at using federal dollars to send children to private schools. Educators also expressed concerns about holding schools accountable based only on test scores.
"I like it very much," Phyllis McClure, an independent consultant on education and equity, said of Mr. Bush's accountability plan. "I've been arguing for years that the federal taxpayers' dollars should not be subsidizing failing schools, and he's the first person at the national level who's been willing to take that on."
Edward J. Fuller, a senior researcher with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, said the idea of holding schools accountable based on "disaggregated" test scores for low-income students, in particular, was critical and had worked well in Texas. "If you ask teachers in Texas, they'll say, 'Yes, we know we must pay attention to every single kid now,' " he said.
But Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy argued that President Bush was offering "weak accountability, not strong accountability," because states would be able to pick their own definitions of acceptable student achievement, and the worst penalties states would face for failing to make progress would be losing a portion of their administrative funds under Title I.
"The issue before was, how the heck do you make sure that state standards and state tests are good enough in order to make these rewards and impose these consequences?" said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington- based Center for Education Reform, which promotes school choice. "And I think the Bush proposal answers these questions very nicely."
Mr. Bush has proposed verifying state test-score gains by comparing them with NAEP results. To make that work, however, more states would have to participate in the national assessment. In 1999-2000, 48 states signed up for NAEP, but only 40 had their students take the tests because the others could not persuade enough schools to volunteer.
Moreover, NAEP math and reading tests are administered only every two to four years.
Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the governing board that sets policy for the assessment, said he believes in NAEP as one measure to confirm states' progress.
But, he said, the Bush plan would mean big changes. The total NAEP budget for national and state testing is currently $38 million. "As a rough rule of thumb, to do what is being proposed would certainly double or triple that," said Mr. Musick, who is also the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board. Enticing schools to participate in NAEP by paying them or underwriting all test administration would push the figure still higher.
Educators also expressed concern that testing alone wouldn't produce changes in student achievement and that, despite a promise of some money to help low-performing schools, too little attention was being paid to students' opportunity to learn.
"We know how much intervention and help you have to give schools. Just having the standards and assessments doesn't get the job done," said Mr. Sexton of Kentucky.
But Mr. Musick said any extra assistance for states to help low-performing schools would be welcome: "If there's an appropriate way for the federal government to help schools that are being identified as failing, I'm all for it."
Vol. 20, Issue 20, Pages 1, 25Published in Print: January 31, 2001, as Few States Are Now In Line With Bush Testing Plan