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bush plan -- issues and arguements



Issues and arguments on Bush plan
From: Monty Neill, FairTest
January 24, 2001

{I sent this yesterday, it has been held up from delivery, so I am
simply sending it again -- you may get it again later...)

Last week, staff from a number of education and civil rights groups met
in Washington to discuss opposition to Bush's testing plan. We talked
about the current political situation, the issues and our possible
arguments, and plans for developing our opposition. I will be sending
three posts, one on each of these topics. This one is about issues and
arguments, I'll try to get the others out tomorrow.

I expanded on some points and added others from the discussion last
week. The purpose here is to present arguments that might be used in the
short term (now till spring/summer) to stop Congress from imposing more
tests. I suggest we discuss and sharpen these, and that people use them
in a campaign to stop the Bush plan. Obviously, this is far too much
material for most purposes.

Essential (test-related) elements of Bush plan: The proposals will be
part of the reauthorization of ESEA (which includes Title I). States
required to test all students in grades 3-8 in reading and math to
measure students and schools, with reporting on progress for
"disadvantaged" as well as all students. Sanctions for failure to
improve include vouchers. Significant progress yields rewards, with
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the measure of
progress. States or districts which promise "strict accountability for
improving student achievement" can enter a charter agreement with the Ed
Dept. and obtain "freedom from the current requirements placed on
categorical grant programs" -- which I assume includes civil rights
protections and such. There are other issues in the proposal that will
be of grave concern to many but are not tied directly to testing (e.g.,
ELL students must become fluent in English in 3 years; heavy phonics
approach to teaching reading in a new reading initiative). ["No Child
Left Behind" linked from http://www.whitehouse.gov]

Issues and arguments (these are not arranged in order of importance or
primacy for our work, tho I have tried to have some coherence to the
flow; some points depend in part on other points):

An unwanted federal mandate: Civil rights groups have a long history of
supporting some kinds of federal mandates, with good reason. However,
mandates must be helpful, not harmful, particularly to low-income
students, students of color, recent immigrants who are learning English,
and special needs students. The Bush testing proposal will not be
helpful, but will be harmful. It is an unnecessary and damaging
intrusion into the process of school reform. This scheme appears
different from the national test proposed by G.H.W. Bush and by Clinton,
but the real similarities are more striking: a federal mandate to the
states to engage in more testing, with NAEP used to measure the states.

Test-only accountability: Bush proposes less federal "intrusion" and
more "freedom" by way of eliminating regulations, many of which provide
safeguards to vulnerable students. Implicitly, the Bush plan says that
the only accountability needed is found in test scores, and that as long
as scores go up, education is better for all, so protective regulations
are not needed. There is simply no good evidence to support any part of
this claim, and its proponents should be pushed to prove the claims. By
reducing accountability to test scores, it also reduces the vision and
goals of education to what can be measured on tests.

Not educationally needed: Bush defends his plan to test every student in
grades 3-8 in reading and math as a means to identify students who are
not making progress, so that they can be provided help. This should be a
district and school imperative, though it could include state oversight
to ensure schools are doing it. It does not require standardized
testing. In fact, given the severe limitations of standardized tests,
this program will fail to identify many students who need help (either
because of inaccuracy of tests or because the important area is not
tested) and will lead to teaching to the too-limited tests, thereby
either damaging existing good curriculum or preventing needed real
reforms.

Lack of demonstrated effectiveness: There is no evidence that states
which test a lot have better outcomes than states which do not -- to the
contrary, it is states which have historically tested least, and are
less likely to attach high-stakes to their tests, which generally do
best on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have lower
dropout rates [check], and send more students on to college [seems to be
true from eyeballing recent evaluation of state college systems, Ed Week
1/6/00]. True, these are mostly northern states which have long had
better educational systems -- but why model national mandated "reforms"
on unsuccessful programs from weaker-performing states?

False improvement: When there is too much attention to tests, schools
are turned into test-coaching programs and test scores are inflated.
Texas, on which his testing plan is modeled, demonstrates all-too-well
the inadequacy of test-driven reform (see FairTest Examiner articles,
www.fairtest.org ). It's dropout/pushout rates are among the highest in
the nation and appear to have risen in reaction to the state's
high-stakes testing program. Though scores have risen on the state's
TAAS test, the test itself has been made easier and the gains usually
fail to appear even on other tests: Based on a Texas state college test,
the number of students needing remediation has increased [if anyone has
the full report on this, let me know]; SAT scores have not risen as they
have in other states, even when taking account increases in the number
of students taking the college admissions exam; and reading scores on
the National Assessment of Education Progress failed to increase in
Texas, while the score gap between blacks and Latinos versus whites
increased [on this, see most recent of RAND studies]. Similarly,
Houston, the district which Education Secretary Rod Paige headed until
January, has one of the highest dropout rates among all urban districts.

Let the poor eat tests: In defending his testing proposals, Bush has
maintained that low expectations are racist -- but test driven education
embodies low expectations. The combination of funding and sanctions will
make the tests high-stakes where they now are not, with all the
well-documented harmful consequences for curriculum and instruction,
particularly for low-income and minority-group students. [We will need a
succinct summary of this.] The key point is that curriculum and
instruction are reduced to test coaching programs. Wealthier districts
will be able to provide resources to help those not passing without
undermining the rest of education; poorer districts will not.

Not enough money: Yes, there will be more money under a Bush or other
proposal (until tax cuts and military spending increases and economic
slowdown intervene), but this federal money will be wholly inadequate
for needed improvements while saddling states, districts, schools, and
their students with massive testing requirements. Further, it is
entirely clear that increasing numbers of poor children, lacking
adequate nutrition, housing and health care, often with overworked
parent(s), are a major reason for any lack of academic achievement --
but the Bush approach will do nothing about these. In effect, schools
and educators will be asked to do the impossible, still without the
resources to do even what is possible, and then blamed for the
inevitable inability to do the impossible. And all the while, other
profound social problems will not be addressed as all the attention is
focused on school test scores.

Sorting, tracking, segregating: Under the guise of improving education
for all, the consequences of intensified testing are apt to be the
reverse. Testing has long been used to sort students into tracks, and
based on extensive evidence from Texas and other states, it still is.
Now some children are tracked into test prep, others into more
educationally substantive programs. Low scorers get drill and kill with
the claim that later they will get more advanced work - but later never
comes because drill and kill is intellectual malnourishment and students
in low (test prep) tracks fall further and further behind. Test scores
are increasingly used in selling real estate, which means property in
high-scoring districts is bid up, making those schools harder for poor
or moderate-income people to access. As test scores correlate best with
class status, this intensified economic segregation. And since people of
color are disproportionately lower income and have less "capital" (e.g.,
down payment for a house), racial segregation also increases.

Misguided instruction: Test proponents typically have a view of learning
in which one first gets "basics" and then later learns to "think."
Extensive research shows how flawed this approach is. However, it still
dominates in schools serving lower income students: they are much more
apt to get drill and kill instruction geared toward tests. Instruction
which would engage them and help them learn "basics" and to think in a
subject is usually absent. (Lorrie Shepard's AERA presidential address
is excellent on this, on www.aera.net). (This in turn, reminds us that
"testing gets motivation wrong" also, as Alfie Kohn and others point
out.) This argument can seem arcane, but it is important because
defenders of Bush plan will argue that low-scoring students need to get
basic skills, this will identify those who need it, and so it is
worthwhile. In this case, we also need to point out that in the end,
they never get the good education (as numerous arguments above have
stated).

Unreasonable requirements on states: States have a wide range in the
number of grades in which they test (Quality Counts 2001 has a table on
this).Only 13 test in English and math in grades 3-8, while 16 pretty
much test only twice in that grade span for those subjects (two test
twice in one subject, thrice in other; one is phasing a grade out of
testing). The rest are in between, with about 10 only testing slightly
more than the minimum (e..g, 3 of the 6 grade levels) and the rest
divided in various combinations (including 3 which test in 5 of 6 grade
levels). In short, half the states test less than half the amount Bush
would require. Clearly, many states will have to drastically increase
the amount of testing they do. Many states might not be happy to have to
expand their testing programs.

Inadequate tests: Achieve, which was set up by the governors to support
the "standards and tests" movement has concluded that almost no states
have adequate state tests when examined in light of the state's own
standards (which of course may also be poor). A University of Wisconsin
study found similar results. CARE in Massachusetts has found major gaps
between standards and that state's tests. In short, the tests in use
fail to adequately assess to the standards. Eva Baker, co-director of
CRESST, the federally-funded research center on tests, maintains (to sum
up a bit crudely) that the testing technology does not now exist to
adequately assess all students and programs regularly to the standards
and for multiple purposes [her ETS Angoff lecture,
http://www.ets.org/research/index.html]. In short, states don't test
well and the technology does not exist to let them do so. It thus makes
no sense to maintain that testing will lead to high standards when the
tests do not and cannot consistently assess to high standards. Either we
will have low-standards tests driving curriculum and instruction or we
can attempt other means to ensure high-quality curriculum and
instruction than through traditional standardized tests (including most
of the current ones with open-ended questions).

Inaccurate tests: Scores for an individuals can vary greatly because
even tests with high reliability can have substantial measurement error.
The same thing is true for groups of students within schools or for
whole schools. A recent independent study found that one third of the
variance in North Carolina school reading gains result from "luck of the
draw" (Rothstein 1/24/01 in NYT). Decisions made on test score changes
will produce false "failures" and "successes," unjustly rewarding and
penalizing, and potentially encouraging schools to copy the "false
successes" or drop things that really work in schools that are "false
failures."

Multiple measures: Since not one measure is adequate (indeed, multiple
mostly ought to mean more than even 2 measures), under Title I states
are to use multiple measures, but almost none really do. In reality, it
is not possible for most states to both intensify narrow testing such as
that proposed by Bush and to improve the quality of assessments while
adopting multiple measures. The Bush plan therefore will undermine the
effort to adopt multiple measures, which is the only way to adequately
assess (and which realistically can only be done at the school level for
individual students -- see CARE plan).

Improve Title I: Bush's plan indicates that most of the changes he wants
around testing will be done through reauthorization of ESEA (including
Title I). The current Title I testing requirements are essentially that
states assess students once in each of three grade spans (in effect,
elementary, middle and high) with state assessments or approved district
assessments, in subjects in which the state has standards (see above for
summary of what states are doing by subject and grade). Since the
assessments are to be based on standards, norm-referenced commercial
tests should not be used -- but many states use them, including for
Title I purposes, and some use both but in different grades (this won't
work for the Bush plan because the scores are not comparable). The
Department of Education has let states off the hook on these
requirements (including for multiple measures).
What some would view as positive "tightening up" of Title I might be
viewed by others as problematic (more state tests in order to have
"multiple measures;" lousy tests in more subjects, such as history and
science, to match subjects in which the states have standards). However,
if Title I's basic approach is accepted (and I think nothing better is
remotely possible from this Congress), it should not be undermined by
mandating too much testing, but rather should be actually implemented as
is. (Of course this assumes state standards are reasonable, and it does
not address high stakes testing of students, which is not required by
Title I.) That is, Title I provides a reasonable balance between
federal, state, and local, and it allows useful flexibility in
assessment (e.g., states can assign assessment responsibility to
districts and not have a single state test). Last year's failed efforts
to reauthorize Title I included HR2, which passed the House and did not
include more testing requirements but some fine-tuning; Lieberman's
Senate bill (now touted as "the alternative" to Bush's proposal), which
last year did not increase testing; and Jefford's bill (he chairs
Senate's education committee) which was similar on testing to HR2.
Congress should return to these approaches. [Does anyone have Lieberman
bill or know of others introduced -- I have heard there are already
others.]

Undermining NAEP: The Bush plan would expand NAEP testing in reading and
math to every year in grades 4 and 8 (now done every 2 - 4 years) and
require states to participate (most, not all, do, and they now pay their
own way). The results would be used to determine state progress and
provide a check on state tests (interesting given Bush's attack on RAND
study that pointed out lack of progress on NAEP in reading in TX).
Effectively, this would make NAEP a moderately high-stakes test.

Misguided "professional development": training teachers to be test prep
coaches rather than real teachers makes a mockery of professional
development and guarantees teachers who are unable to really help
students learn -- and who will be concentrated in districts serving poor
kids.

Toward a national curriculum: Already we have heard of states aligning
their tests to the NAEP test frameworks, which may give them an edge on
NAEP. Inevitably, states would do this. We know schools align curriculum
to tests, which would mean schools would align curriculum to NAEP
framework--once again the back door to a national curriculum without
open discussion about this as a goal. The line-up behind the federal
requirements would be less precise than with a national test, but it
would be a line-up.

Misplaced goals: Accountability and testing is not the goal, they are
tools, we must make sure they do not become impediments to reaching the
goal. Goal is strong achievement for all, current tests cannot lead us
to high achievement because they cannot match the better standards. With
money, sanctions, high stakes, tests will lead schools astray, not to
high achievement. (This argument also rests in part on problems with
testing technology.)
More broadly, what should be the goals of schools and who decides? This
vital discussion has been hijacked by proponents (corporate,
governmental, etc.) of standardized tests who reduce the issue to one of
raising test scores.

We need to design good schools: The Bush plan is another effort to "fix
things" -- e.g., catch students who fall behind (casting it in its best
light). However, what is really needed is to design schools that work
right -- which means provide a high-quality education from the start,
which includes really adequate resources, good teachers, etc. This is a
very different approach from what Bush is proposing. False quick fixes
after fact, even if sold as "leaving no child behind," are in fact
guaranteed to leave many behind. We know an enormous amount about how to
provide good education, to design schools that really work to educate
for full citizenship rather than to pass standardized tests, but such
schools remain few and far between for poor kids. Bush's proposal is
another effort to avoid grappling with really making good schools, just
as it was in Texas. Congress should address this issue, which might take
it more than half a year.

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