U.S. Should Do More to Aid States in Developing Tests, Report Says

By David J. Hoff — January 31, 2006 6 min read

With the testing industry struggling to keep up with the demand fueled by mandates for more student tests, the Bush administration needs to take dramatic steps to ensure that states have the ability to develop high-quality K-12 assessments, the first report from a recently launched Washington policy group says.

President Bush should establish a commission on standardized testing and create an independent agency to oversee state tests, and Congress should more than double the $406 million it gives states to produce the tests, according to Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank formed last year by a former aide to President Clinton and a former education journalist.

“Margins of Error: The Education Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era” is available from Education Sector.

“If they want to ensure that No Child Left Behind is successful,” Thomas Toch, a co-director and co-founder of Education Sector, said last week, “they are going to have to address the problems that No Child Left Behind has wrought in the testing industry.”

The problems generated by the 4-year-old No Child Left Behind Act—President Bush’s flagship education law, which holds schools accountable for raising all students to academic proficiency—include financial pressures that have resulted in tests that assess low-level skills, as well as a lack of experts to produce the high-quality tests that would measure challenging academic content, Mr. Toch said.

‘Covering the Costs’

But the administration is satisfied that the amount of federal money now being spent on state assessments is adequate, said Chad Colby, a spokesman for the Department of Education.

Education Sector

This Washington think tank, formed in 2005 with foundation support, aims to be an independent voice on educational policy. Here are some key players.

Andrew J. Rotherham, co-director, was President Clinton’s education adviser in 1999 and 2000. From 2001 to 2005, he was the director of education issues at the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He is still a senior fellow for the institute. He is also a member of the Virginia state board of education, to which he was appointed by former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat.

Thomas Toch, co-director, is a former writer-in-residence for the National Center for Education and the Economy and a former guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He has worked as a journalist for U.S. News & World Report and Education Week.

Kevin Carey, research and policy manager, is a former policy-research director at the Education Trust and a former analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Sara Mead, senior policy analyst, has worked as a policy analyst for the Progressive Policy Institute and as a staff member for the 2000 presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore.

SOURCE: Education Sector

Before the No Child Behind Act became law in 2002, Mr. Colby said, states received nothing to develop the tests required under the previous version of Title I, the federal program for disadvantaged K-12 students, which the law reauthorized along with other programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“Four hundred million is covering the costs of the assessments,” Mr. Colby said.

A testing-industry official said that, while that money is helpful, states are increasingly requesting expensive services, such as assessments designed to measure their specific standards.

“States would be happy to have more money,” said Maureen G. DiMarco, a senior vice president of the Houghton Mifflin Co., the Boston-based publisher of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, “because they’re tending to do more customized tests with items that have to be replaced more frequently.”

Adding a Voice

The new report, “Margins of Error: The Education Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era,” which was set for release this week, is an example of how Education Sector can be “an honest broker and a source of sound thinking on education policy,” according to Mr. Toch, a former journalist who covered education for U.S. News & World Report and for Education Week.

Although Andrew J. Rotherham, Education Sector’s other co-founder and co-director, is a former education adviser to Mr. Clinton, a Democrat, and remains affiliated with a centrist Democratic think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, he and Mr. Toch believe that their new organization can add an independent voice to education policy debates.

“People will have to take a look at the body of work” to determine whether it is partisan, Mr. Rotherham said.

Because Mr. Rotherham’s staunch support for the No Child Left Behind law and for charter schools is contrary to the stance of many Democratic-leaning groups, said one conservative analyst, Education Sector should be able to maintain credibility as a nonpartisan group.

“Anybody who has followed Andy knows … that any political consideration always comes second to policy considerations,” said Don Soifer, the education analyst for the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that promotes private school vouchers and charter schools.

Mr. Rotherham and Mr. Toch are seeking to contrast Education Sector with research and policy groups that they see as reflecting certain biases. They say think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, on the conservative end of the spectrum, produce reports that support their leaders’ long-standing policy positions, while teachers’ unions underwrite research organizations that don’t fully disclose their relationship to the unions.

The new organization must position itself in a crowded landscape of Washington-based policy groups dealing with education. Over the past decade or so, other groups that combine research and policy analysis or advocacy, often from a moderate perspective, have sprouted in the nation’s capital, including the Education Trust, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Center for National Education Policy.

Education Sector is being financed by philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It has received enough grants to support the organization for several years, Mr. Toch said.

Much of Education Sector’s work will be done via its Web site, www.edsector.org. Mr. Rotherham will continue to write his Web log, Eduwonk, an often-acerbic commentary on K-12 education news, and two other policy analysts at the organization plan to start their own blog. The group says it also will post data and magazine-length articles about pressing policy debates, such as vouchers in Florida and the distribution of student financial aid.

Big Year for Testing

Education Sector’s leaders say they chose to evaluate the testing industry as their first major project to draw attention to the test-makers’ role in ensuring the success of the 4-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires states to test in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school. States have been scrambling to add new tests to meet the federal mandate. (“State Test Programs Mushroom as NCLB Mandate Kicks In,” Nov. 30, 2005.)

The law’s requirements are being fully implemented for the first time in the 2005-06 school year, meaning that states will give more than 45 million tests this year. That’s 11.3 million more tests than last year, Education Sector estimates in its report.

“Most of these tests are not very accurate measures of whether or not students or schools are achieving [state] standards,” Mr. Toch, who wrote the report, said in an interview.

For the report, which was scheduled for release on Jan. 31, Mr. Toch interviewed state officials and surveyed 23 states about their testing policies.

In addition to providing oversight and financial support, Education Sector says, the federal government should do more to encourage states to form consortia that would pool resources to produce tests used in several states. And the Education Department should offer financial incentives, it says, to states that form compacts, such as the New England Common Assessment Program formed by Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. (“Small States Find Benefits in Jointly Developed Tests,” Oct. 19, 2005.)

While such consortia would help states in the long run, they also would be an initial step toward establishing a national testing system, the report says.

“The closer we get to such a system,” it concludes, “the more the nation’s overextended testing infrastructure could focus on creating much smaller numbers of much-higher-quality assessments.”

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