Special Report

Pressure Without Support

By Ulrich Boser — January 11, 2001 8 min read
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More states than ever are holding schools and students responsible for results. But states have been slower to provide the support needed to reach the higher expectations, a 50-state survey conducted by Education Week for Quality Counts 2001 concludes.

Those findings are laid out in the tables that follow.

The survey is the most comprehensive to date on state policies that aim to hold schools and students responsible for results and build their capacity to reach academic standards. It is based on written questionnaires and extensive telephone interviews with state officials. In addition, Education Week documented state policies by reviewing relevant state laws and regulations. Each state superintendent or commissioner of education confirmed the data.

Assessment: All 50 states now have student-testing programs, although the details of such programs vary greatly. Few states, however, have constructed testing programs that adequately measure student achievement against state standards. States often claim their tests are linked to their standards, but research suggests that alignment is not as close as it should be. (See related story, Page 33.) Only 12 states have asked a group outside their borders to review the alignment between their state standards and tests. The groups that have led such evaluations include Achieve, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit organization; WestEd, a federally financed research center in San Francisco; and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

(In the tables that follow, North Dakota is not listed as having test aligned with its standards. The state mandates that all it schools administer the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. But only schools receiving federal money also must give a standards-based, criterion-referenced test, which measures how well students have mastered the state’s standards.)

The Education Week survey also found that while state assessment systems no longer rely solely on multiple-choice questions, they often lack a rich mix of testing formats.

Most states use multiple-choice and short-answer items. And they typically use an essay exam to measure students’ writing ability. But only seven states include essay-style questions in subjects other than English. Only Kentucky and Vermont use portfolio - collections of student work that are graded, in part, by state officials.

Moreover, many state tests remain shrouded in secrecy. Every state releases a few sample test questions to familiarize students and teachers with its exam. But only six states unveil the entire versions of previously administered assessments. (States publicize “live” test items, not those being field-tested.) Seventeen states release some of their tests.

States are more likely to issue the performance tasks from previous assessments because they are the least expensive test items to make public.

New Jersey and Oregon are the only two states that use so-called predictive exams, which give students feedback ahead of time about their likelihood of passing or failing a test.

A small number of states require teachers to help grade their own students’ state tests. In Vermont, for instance, teachers grade their own students’ portfolios, which are then sent to state officials to verify the scores. Twelve states hire some teachers to grade tests over the summer. Those programs vary greatly in size, from a half-dozen teachers in Mississippi to several hundred in Maine.

State tests rarely provide the feedback needed for teachers and student to learn from their mistakes. Only four states let teachers know how each student performed on every multiple-choice item. Only nine send teachers their own students’ scored work on essay questions. Districts usually receive such information in the form of a CD-ROM, which teachers can access.

Accountability: States have rushed to implement accountability measures, but they have not done enough to ensure that schools are rated fairly or that students and schools receive adequate support.

Twenty-seven states rate schools primarily on the basis of test scores. Of those, only 16 incorporate other information in their formulas. That information varies widely, from course-taking patterns to reports from site visits.

Some states judge schools by test-score gains over time. Others hold all schools to the same, absolute standard. In Texas, minority and low-income students in each school must meet the same performance levels as their other classmates for the school to be deemed “acceptable.”

Other states examine the achievement gaps between all subgroups within a school and penalize schools that register large disparities.

Indiana is the only state to lower the expectations for schools on the basis of their students’ poverty levels and IQ-test scores. Next year, the state plans to stop factoring IQ tests into its rating system.

To ensure that students do not get trapped indefinitely in low-performing schools, 14 states have given their education departments the power to close, take over, or otherwise overhaul chronically low-performing schools. In reality, few states have exercised such authority.

While many states now use test results to hold individual students accountable for their performance, they have been less eager to judge individual teachers or principals based on their students’ achievement. Only Texas evaluates individual teachers based, in part, on the ratings their schools receive. Delaware and Georgia plan to use student-achievement data to help evaluate teachers in the future.

States are far more amenable to holding students accountable. Eighteen states currently withhold diplomas from students who fail state tests, and three states base promotion to the next grade primarily on test scores.

Almost all those states have a waiver process that allows some students, such as those with disabilities, to earn a diploma without meeting the testing requirements.

The data about high school exams were collected, in part, by the Washington-based National Governors’ Association and are published in a document titled the “Graduation Exit Exam Matrix.” It is available online at www.nga.org/Education/.

Rewards: Carrots should be offered as well as sticks, experts say, and 20 states reward successful schools with money for high or improving test scores. Six states offer students incentives for high performance on state exams.

States that offer scholarships for high performance usually permit the money to be used in the traditional way: to attend a college or university upon high school graduation.

Missouri is unique in that students can use the scholarships to help pay for “dual-credit courses” before they graduate. Students take classes at higher education institutions while still in high school, and the state pays for them. This allows students to earn credit toward a high school diploma as well as a college degree.

Building Capacity: Beyond helping their lowest-performing students and schools, states have a role in ensuring that all teachers have adequate access to the professional development and instructional materials needed to teach to higher standards.

Forty-two states provide some money for professional development either at the state or local level. But states were unable to calculate the total dollars spent on professional development because the funding comes from many sources and is scattered throughout their budgets.

Only 24 states earmark professional-development funds specifically for every local school or district, totaling $757 million across the United States.

Education Week calculated the average amount of professional-development money spent per teacher in each state, using the most recent data from a National Center for Education Statistics publication, “Early Estimates of Public Elementary and Secondary Education Statistics, School Year 1999-2000.” The Education Week analysis found large discrepancies from state to state. Alaska spends about $3,500 per teacher, while Utah spends less than $100. The average across states was $547 per teacher.

Thirty-eight states require teachers to participate in professional development to maintain their teaching licenses. But only seven of those states demand that at least some of a teacher’s professional development be in his or her subject area.

New Jersey mandates that teachers have training in the state standards in order to be recertified. Maryland, meanwhile, requires current teachers to take additional coursework in reading theory and methodology to renew their licenses--a one-time requirement for secondary teachers.

Regardless of state professional-development policies, the amount of ongoing training that teachers actually receive varies greatly across states, based on an Education Week analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In 1998, only 13 percent of 8th graders in West Virginia had language arts teachers who had undergone 15 hours or more of training in reading or writing instruction in the past year. In contrast, 57 percent of 4th graders in California had language arts teachers who had received 15 hours or more of professional development in teaching reading or writing.

The data come from NAEP, a cross-state compendium of performance data published by the NCES. The data are available at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/.

The examination of NAEP data also found that many teachers lack access to the materials needed to teach their classes.

Only about seven out of 10 4th and 8th grade students nationwide had language arts teachers in 1998 who reported having all or most of the resources they needed.

The problem is worse for teachers of low-income students. In Michigan, for instance, just under half the 8th graders who were poor enough to qualify for free school lunches had math teachers who reported having all or most of the instructional materials they needed. In contrast, nearly three-quarters of the nonpoor 8th graders had math teachers who reported having all or most of the instructional materials they needed.

Supplying teachers with the requisite materials is not enough, experts say. To reach higher standards, teachers need extra time and support. Nationally, 46 percent of 4th graders had mathematics teachers who said they had a curriculum specialist available in their subject; 52 percent of 8th graders had teachers who reported the availability of such assistance.

About 72 percent of 4th graders and 91 percent of 8th graders nationally had math teachers who were provided with at least three school hours of “prep time” every week or time during the school day to prepare for classes.

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2001 edition of Education Week


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