President Bush urged Congress last week not to overreach in setting the bar for adequate school performance, just as several reports have been released suggesting that current language in both the House and Senate education bills would do just that.
“I appreciate aiming high, but setting impossible expectations means setting no expectations,” Mr. Bush said in an Aug. 1 speech to the National Urban League here. “The undoable never gets done. If we identify all schools as failures, we won’t be able to focus on the greatest needs.”
His comments echo concerns expressed in recent weeks by White House staff members and many lawmakers.
The same day, Senate and House members met to ratify some minor agreements on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the vehicle for Mr. Bush’s drive for heightened accountability for schools. But they acknowledged that the toughest work remained to be done.
At the top of that to-do list: defining “adequate yearly progress,” the way of measuring how much schools, districts, and states must improve student achievement to avoid federally imposed penalties.
“We’re off to a pretty good start,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “I think all of us realize that our most significant challenges lie ahead.”
The agreements last week dealt with matters generally considered noncontroversial, including programs for migrant students, neglected and delinquent students, and homeless students.
The House and Senate both approved versions of the ESEA this spring with overwhelming bipartisan support. Now, a 39-member conference committee from the two houses will try to resolve the differences.
Beyond his concerns about accountability, President Bush last week called on Congress to ensure that the tests used in states for the required annual reading and math assessments in grades 3-8 are comparable from place to place and year to year. And, he said, states should use the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a benchmark to provide “independent evidence that state tests are rigorous.”
Currently, the Senate bill requires the use of NAEP, but the House version would allow the use of alternatives.
Meanwhile, the opposition to the ESEA testing proposals has grown more vocal.
At the end of last week, members of the House and the Senate left town for the monthlong August recess without meeting Mr. Bush’s goal of having a final bill on his desk by then. Lawmakers promised that their staff members would keep busy negotiating the details of the bill throughout this month, but they avoided setting a firm deadline for completion.
Among the issues that members have cited as hardest to resolve are the language on accountability, questions about how much consolidation of ESEA programs should take place, and the widely different spending levels authorized in the competing bills.
Even so, conference committee members last week expressed optimism that the differences will be resolved.
Several recent reports have fed a growing sense among many lawmakers and the White House that current language for identifying failing schools may be unrealistic.
The Congressional Research Service issued a report July 26 indicating that in three states—Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas—relatively few public schools would have met the “adequate yearly progress” requirements established in either the Senate or House bill over the period of 1998 to 2000.
A separate report by Thomas J. Kane, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Douglas O. Staiger of Dartmouth College, and Jeffrey Geppert of the National Bureau of Economic Research found that virtually every elementary school in Texas and North Carolina would have failed to meet the proposed requirements at least once between 1994 and 1999.
But Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst for the Education Trust, which has helped lead the charge for higher standards, disagreed with the president and others on the issue.
“We have in the past vastly underestimated the capacity for kids, particularly low-income and minority kids, to make academic progress,” she said. “I’m not willing to join the chorus that says our kids can’t. I’m not willing to join the chorus that says our teachers can’t.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bush Warns Against ‘Undoable’ ESEA Progress Standard