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Let Them Eat Tests

Let Them Eat Tests

Federally mandated annual testing is the cornerstone of the comprehensive, bipartisan bill that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a consolidation of the major K-12 federal education programs including the Title I program that reaches 47,000 high-poverty schools. The tests are central to a greatly expanded and revised role for the federal government in local schools and districts.

The bill's far-reaching implications are just now coming into focus, despite the high-profile attention Bush gave to education issues during his campaign. The euphemistically named "No Child Left Behind Act" passed with overwhelming Republican and Democratic support, 381-41 in the House, 87-10 in the Senate. Two Senators, Kennedy (D-MA) and Gregg (R-NH) and two Representatives, Boehner (R-OH) and Miller (D-CA) were largely responsible for crafting the legislation, bypassing in significant ways some of the usual advocacy input, deal-making and compromise that normally raise alarms about dramatic shifts in federal policy.

Among the major features in the law, which runs over 1,000 pages:

  • Mandated annual tests in reading and math from grades 3-8 and at least once in grades 10-12.
  • Additional annual tests in science beginning in 2007, given once between grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12.
  • Use of these tests to determine whether schools are making "adequate yearly progress" towards 100 percent proficiency for all students within 12 years (2013- 2014).
  • Sanctions for schools receiving federal Title I funds that don't reach their "adequate yearly progress" goals, which most likely will be impossible to meet (see below). The sanctions include now-familiar "corrective measures" like outside intervention by consultants, replacement of staff, or state takeover. Additional sanctions reflect the administration's privatization agenda that lurks just below the surface of the legislation. This includes use of federal funds to provide "supplemental services" to students from outside agencies, imposing school choice or charter plans, or transferring management of schools to private contractors. Tenure reform, merit pay, and teacher testing are also potentially in the mix, though they are not mandated by the new law.

What's significant about these policies is not so much their content - they are neither new nor promising as school improvement strategies - but their federal endorsement and political packaging. This rightward turn in federal education policy comes linked to Bush's trademark "compassionate conservatism." As in Texas, it includes a rhetorical attack on the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and purports to focus attention on the real crisis of school failure in many poor communities. The law targets more federal money to the poorest schools, and mandates dramatic changes in testing and reporting requirements that will focus attention on the racial dimensions of the achievement gap, the learning needs of new English language students and students with special needs, and the widespread use of underqualified and uncertified teachers.

But while the legislation turns up the spotlight, and the heat, on low-performing schools, the remedies it offers have proven ineffective, even harmful. Furthermore, the extra dollars, an additional 18 percent or about $3.5 billion more for ESEA programs, are already threatened by the administration's "war budget" - which calls for eliminating 26 of the federal programs just reauthorized in the new ESEA. The legislation still doesn't provide full funding for Title I, which currently reaches less than half of all eligible low-income students. In fact the gap between the bill's lofty goals and its low-rent resources suggest its proper title would have been, "The Unfunded Federal Mandates Bill."

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