Special Report

The State Of the States 2000

By Craig D. Jerald — January 13, 2000 10 min read

Teacher quality may have held the spotlight in 1999, but state policymakers continued the arduous march to improve other aspects of their public education systems as well.

The past year offered a much-anticipated update on reading achievement across the nation and the states, as well as the results of the first state-by-state test of students’ writing ability. Both were conducted as part of the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In February, the U.S. Department of Education announced that 4th graders nationwide had improved their reading scores between 1994 and 1998. But those gains simply offset a previous decline between the 1992 and 1994 exams. Only seven states achieved significant gains from 1992 to 1998 in the percentage of 4th graders reading at the “proficient” level or above on the exams: Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, and Mississippi.

But the handful of states making gains on reading and mathematics in the 1990s have given encouragement to proponents of state efforts to improve education. Many of the states showing improvement on NAEP, including Connecticut, Texas, North Carolina, and Kentucky, have also been pace-setters in education policy, and consequently also score near the top on the Quality Counts indicators.

By the numbers, the most dramatic story is Connecticut’s. Only Connecticut and Colorado saw significant jumps during the 1990s on all the tests that have been given in the same grade multiple times. But Connecticut’s 4th graders gained so much ground they became the first NAEP testing group to form their own statistical league at the top of the heap, according to the federal Education Department.

That news was soon followed by the national assessment’s first writing results, which revealed Connecticut as the only state where more than 40 percent of 8th graders scored “proficient” or better in writing. At 44 percent of students, Connecticut’s proficient rating was well ahead of the performance of the next-highest state, Maine, where 32 percent of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency.

Despite the good news for some states on NAEP, which tests a sampling of students in key subjects, most states have recorded stagnant performance levels, with a few even showing declines. And the country has made disappointingly little progress in closing achievement gaps between minority and white students and between poor students and their more affluent peers.

For example, 4th graders poor enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price-lunch program were only about a third as likely to reach the proficient benchmark on the 1998 reading assessment as their better-off peers. And only 10 percent of the nation’s black 4th graders met the proficient level on the reading test, compared with 39 percent of white 4th graders.

One state that has dramatically improved scores for poor and minority youngsters is Texas, where black and Hispanic 4th graders surpassed their peers in nearly every other state on the 1996 NAEP math exam.

The state’s minority students again broke the curve on NAEP’s 1998 writing test. Twenty percent of Texas’ Hispanic 8th graders scored at the proficient level on that exam, compared with 10 percent nationwide. Among the state’s black 8th graders, 20 percent scored proficient or higher, compared with only 7 percent nationwide and 15 percent in the next-highest state, Connecticut.

In fact, Texas’ African-American and Hispanic students performed as well as or better than the average 8th grader in the other populous, ethnically diverse states of California, Florida, and New York.

That kind of progress doesn’t happen by accident. Texas remains the only state to hold schools accountable for helping poor and minority students meet the same achievement benchmarks as their peers.

Taken together, Texas and Connecticut provide strong evidence that sustained, statewide effort to improve schools can produce dramatic results. Independent analyses of math improvements in Texas and reading improvements in Connecticut, commissioned by the National Education Goals Panel, both concluded that much of the improvement could be attributed to state education policies.

Connecticut has concentrated a great deal of its efforts on raising teacher quality, while Texas has focused more on holding school accountable for results. But when it comes to improving schools, they have both shown relentless consistency in pursuing their goals, implemented serious reforms for more than a decade, and put standards for students at the center of their efforts.

Unabated Push for Standards

The movement to establish statewide academic standards for students has continued unabated since Quality Counts was first published in January 1997. At that time, 38 states had adopted standards in at least some subjects, while 31 had adopted them in all four core academic disciplines: English, mathematics, social studies, and science.

Three years later, every state but Iowa has adopted standards in at least some subjects, and 44 have completed standards in all four of those academic areas.

This year, 48 states are administering statewide testing programs, and 37 told Education Week they incorporate “performance tasks” in their assessments. That dramatic increase reflects the growing agreement that tough standards require sophisticated measurements.

States have also pushed ahead in aligning their test questions to the knowledge and skills written into their standards. The number of states that administer student assessments matched to their standards in at least one subject climbed from 35 in 1997-98 to 41 this school year. The number of states that test whether student are meeting standards in all four of the key academic subjects rose from 17 to 21 during that period.

So far, though, states have been able to earn high marks from Quality Counts by having short-answer questions in only one subject, or by testing their math standards at only one grade level.

Starting this year, Quality Counts will track state assessment systems in much finer detail. While the report continues to grade the states on the old benchmarks this year, it also provides an additional table on Page 73 showing whether sophisticated testing techniques and alignment to standards extend across all three grade levels.

That table, based on a survey of state assessment directors, shows that many states have a long way to go before students in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are all given tests that incorporate performance task and measure state standards.

For instance, while 37 states this school year will administer assessments that contain more than multiple-choice questions, only 10 go so far as to ask that students maintain portfolios of written projects or write extended responses to questions in subjects other than English.

And while 25 states give test aligned to state science standards, only 10 of them administer such tests at the elementary school level. (For a preview of how these new Quality Counts indicators will affect the standards and accountability grades in next year’s report, visit Education Week’s World Wide Web site, www.edweek.org.)

Only a handful of states made progress last year on holding schools accountable for results. Quality Counts 1999 reported that 36 states planned to issue report cards on schools, 19 planned to issue overall ratings for schools based on their performance, and 16 had the legal authority to close, take over, or reconstitute the staffs of failing schools. Based on interviews with state officials, those number will creep up to 40, 21, and 18, respectively, in 2000.

One reason for the small amount of change is that policymakers are adopting a more cautious, incremental approach to implementing school accountability policies. Public resistance to high-stakes measures has surfaced in many places, especially when such measures effect students.

Five states--Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Utah--passed new accountability bills in 1999. All but California and Connecticut, however, plan to wait at least until 2001 to implement the new policies.

States also continue to be stingier with policy carrots than with punishments.

While California joined the ranks of states offering monetary rewards to high-performing schools, legislators in two states--Oregon and South Carolina--killed funding for their school reward programs.

That means 13 states--or one fewer than last year-will offer monetary rewards to successful schools in 2000.

During the past few years, the standards movement has been shadowed by another kind of improvement strategy that proponents sum up in one word: flexibility.

Since last year’s report, three more states--New York, Oklahoma, and Oregon--have passed laws allowing charter schools, public schools that operate free of most state regulations and school district oversight.

Thirty-six states have passed such laws since 1991, and more than 1,700 charter schools enroll an estimated 350,000 students nationwide.

The Quest for Flexibility

School choice policies have grown in tandem. Twenty-nine states now allow parents to shop among public schools across a state or within districts. And last year, Florida adopted the first statewide voucher program, which allows students in low-performing public schools to use state aid to pay tuition at private schools, including religious schools. So far, pupils from two elementary schools in Pensacola qualify for the Florida vouchers.

Even so, the vast majority of public schools are still largely managed from district offices and must request waivers of regulations.

With districts making most decisions about how to equip schools with teachers, supplies, and programs, there is too little room or encouragement for innovation, according to a growing chorus of critics.

Those critics argue that holding schools accountable should also mean giving them more room to decide how best to make the grade. But, so far, no clear consensus has formed on how much freedom traditional public schools should be granted.

In November, however, the National Commission on Governing Schools released a report urging policymakers to consider changes that would have seemed radical only a few years ago. The report, issued by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which appointed the panel, recommended two alternative approaches to school governance.

The first would still require schools to be operated by local districts, but give individual public schools greater authority over their own budgets and teacher hiring.

The second calls for districts to cede direct control over schools to independent entities--such as individual entrepreneurs or nonprofit organizations--that would run schools under contracts with districts or local “chartering boards.” That approach would extend charter schools’ autonomy to all public schools.

Such drastic steps are unlikely to be taken all at once, or even soon. But state accountability laws that put pressure on schools to raise achievement will more than likely continue to stoke the demand for more autonomous schools. And Quality Counts will continue to search for indicators that better measure whether all public schools, not just those with charters, are being offered true flexibility.

A handful of states made progress last year in holding schools accountable for results.

Academic standards are also putting greater pressure on states to find way of better ensuring that school have the money they need to help students meet the new expectations. Alabama, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Vermont, and Wyoming all are struggling to define educational “adequacy” in response to court rulings issued over the past 10 years in school finance lawsuits.

Often that struggle comes down to this question: How much do schools need to spend to offer programs that help students meet the state’s academic standards? But policymakers will be left to take their best stab at defining adequacy until researchers have done more to help settle the question. Ohio and Wyoming, for instance, have come up with different solutions to the problem--Ohio by examining spending patterns in high-performing districts, and Wyoming by asking panels of “expert judges” to define what constitutes a good school.

In the meantime, Quality Counts will continue to grade adequacy by considering how much money is spent per student, whether expenditures have kept up with inflation, and how much of its wealth a state devotes to educating its children.

On the equity front, however, researchers have made significant advances in measuring the extent to which states have built fair systems of paying for their schools. Quality Counts intends to base its equity calculations on those more sophisticated measures next year; a detailed preview of the new analyses appears on the next two pages.

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2000 edition of Education Week