School & District Management

Bush Test Proposal for High Schoolers Joins Wider Trend

By Michelle R. Davis & Alan Richard — September 27, 2004 7 min read
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President Bush’s proposals to expand educational accountability from the elementary and middle grades to high schools would mean more testing for teenagers, individual student plans to promote achievement, and financial incentives for teachers to help students meet their goals.

Mr. Bush’s campaign proposals, unveiled at the Republican National Convention this month, are part of a much broader wave of improvement efforts focused on high schools. While in the past four years the push to improve public education has been targeted mainly at the lower grades, the debate in this election year appears to be shifting to high school.

Both the president and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, his Democratic opponent, are promoting high- school-related reforms and promising new money to implement them. And last week, the National Governors Association kicked off an initiative led by its chairman, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, to spur the states to enact systemic improvement of high school education.

“The mantra for decades is that it’s too late when you get to high school,” said Cynthia H. Sadler, the interim president and the vice president for external relations of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington advocacy organization for high school reform. “We hope this commitment to the kids who have been for so long neglected by the education reform activities at the federal level will start getting them the attention they need.”

The push for accountability has even spread to college and universities. Lawmakers mulling the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act are considering accountability provisions linked to graduation rates and college tuition, among other issues.

At the heart of President Bush’s focus on high school education is a proposed series of reading and mathematics tests in 9th, 10th and 11th grades to help pinpoint which students may be struggling and in which areas. That testing would go beyond the current requirements under the 2½-year-old No Child Left Behind Act championed by Mr. Bush.

Secondary Push

In his Sept. 2 speech in New York City accepting the GOP presidential nomination, Mr. Bush called for a “rigorous exam before graduation.” (“Bush to Seek Accountability in High School,” Sept. 8, 2004.)

His phrasing caused some confusion in the education community. To some, the president’s words sounded like a call for exit exams. Currently, 20 states have exit exams or other tests that students are required to pass before receiving a standard high school diploma.

Indeed, in a campaign speech in Pennsylvania soon after the convention, Mr. Bush said: "[O]ver time, we will require exit exams from high schools because we want the high school diplomas to mean something.”

But Bush campaign officials said the president misspoke. The proposal is “absolutely not an exit exam,” John Bailey, the deputy policy director for the campaign, said last week. The “rigorous exam” in high school Mr. Bush has referred to would be an extension of the testing already required by the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Bailey said.

The president’s main education program requires increased accountability and testing, but primarily in grades 3-8 in reading and math. The law requires testing in those subjects only once in high school. Mr. Bush has also proposed that high school seniors be tested under the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“We think it’s the next step on the ladder,” Mr. Bailey said of the focus on high schools. “With No Child Left Behind, it made a lot of sense for initial education reform to focus on early grades. A lot of problems manifested in high school can be traced back to middle and elementary school.”

The president’s proposal calls for three high school grades to be tested in reading and math, Mr. Bailey said. Mr. Bush says that, if re- elected, he will provide $250 million for states to develop the new high school testing.

Longtime critics of educational testing did not welcome the president’s plan.

“We believe the federal government has really overreached in requiring testing in grades 3 through 8,” said Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group that is critical of what it views as abuses in testing. “There’s zero evidence that all this testing has had a major, positive impact on education.”

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, a Pennsylvania Republican who chaired the House education committee in the 1990s and successfully fought back a push from President Clinton for new national tests, said last week that he believes President Bush should focus instead on getting the details of the No Child Left Behind law right before introducing more high school testing requirements.

“We must make sure that we have everything in working order in No Child Left Behind and have enough years behind us to see what needs to be changed before we move in a new direction,” Mr. Goodling said.

Keith Gayler, the associate director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, said he wonders whether there would be support for students in high schools that did poorly on the tests proposed by Mr. Bush.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, a Title I school labeled “in need of improvement” must under certain circumstances provide free tutoring and the option for students to transfer. But Mr. Gayler pointed out that far fewer high schools than elementary schools receive federal Title I money and thus, if identified as needing improvement, may not have to take any action.

Potential Benefits

Ross Weiner, the policy director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates high educational standards for poor and minority children, said, however, that the additional testing would provide more information on how students were doing in order to help them learn.

“If you know that your child is not proficient in 8th grade, do you want to wait until 11th grade to see if they’ve caught up?” he said. “There’s a lot of positive things that could come out of this.”

President Bush also proposes spending $200 million to encourage states to use 8th grade test data to create performance plans for students who are entering high school. But with some 3.7 million public school 8th graders, that would amount to only about $54 per student for the plans.

Mr. Bush has also proposed a $500 million incentive fund for states and school districts that wanted to reward teachers for improving students’ test scores and to attract teachers to difficult-to-fill jobs in rural and urban areas in subjects such as math and science.

The president’s proposals also include expanding on existing programs. If elected to a second term in November, he wants to double the amount of money, to $200 million, spent on his “striving readers” literacy program; put $120 million into math and science education and teacher training; and establish a $33 million program for enhanced Pell Grants for college to reward low-income students who take rigorous high school classes.

“The interesting thing is how the president is talking about education now,” Mr. Bailey said. “He really sees that the key to the U.S. economy’s competitiveness in the 21st century … is education.”

Mr. Kerry’s high school proposals center on graduation rates. He has said he wants to impose an extra level of accountability that would force schools and districts to show annual progress in increasing graduation rates for disadvantaged and minority students. Mr. Kerry has said he also wants to promote smaller high schools and more challenging high school curricula.

Governors’ Initiative

Other leaders have their own ideas about improving high schools.

Virginia’s Gov. Warner says he will make strengthening the senior year of high school his focus as the new chairman of the National Governors Association.

“There are a lot of examples of good practices. What we don’t see are strong statewide approaches” to improving high schools, the Democrat said in a Sept. 9 interview in Falls Church, Va., where he unveiled the initiative at George C. Marshall High School in the 167,000-student Fairfax County school district.

He said the governors’ group plans to survey 10,000 U.S. high school students by mid-2005 to seek their ideas on making the senior year more worthwhile. He urged a focus on dropout prevention, better career courses, and extra help for struggling students.

“It’s doable,” Gov. Warner said. “It’s not going to break the bank to initiate these reforms. It’s not going to require major shifts in education policy.”

In a similar vein, a report from the Southern Governors Association is recommending that state leaders in the South place a new focus on improving high schools. (“High School Policy Gets Spotlight in Report to Southern Governors,” this issue.)

Gov. Warner criticized some of President Bush’s proposals on high schools—but warmed to others.

The governor opposes the idea that the federal government ought to add new test requirements for high schools—especially in Virginia and other states that have their own end-of-course tests that students must pass to graduate. He said he was open to federal grants or other types of funding for teacher rewards and individual education plans for high school students.

Mr. Warner said he plans to launch a pilot performance-pay program of his own for teachers in Virginia, and supports federal funding for the strategy. “I think performance pay ought to be explored,” using federal grants that allow states to mold their own programs, he said.

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