Leaving Many Children Behind

Leaving Many Children Behind

By the time this is published, Congress likely will have mandated a massive increase in state standardized testing and threatened harsh sanctions on schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” in raising test scores. The consequences for children, educators, and schools will be profound. Touted as a means to “leave no child behind,” the emphasis on testing—coupled with the lack of adequate school funding and the absence of programs to address the needs of poor children, such as housing, nutrition, and medical care—means many children will be left behind.

President George W. Bush has pushed hard for increased testing and test-based “accountability.” Unlike Bill Clinton and the senior Bush, George W. proposed not a national test but mandated state testing—every child, every year, in grades three through eight, in reading and math, as well as once in high school. Currently, only fifteen states mandate such extensive testing.

Facing little coherent opposition from mainstream education and civil rights groups, the Senate and House passed plans to increase testing as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the major source of federal funds for schools. Both versions require test results to be publicly reported at the school, district, and state levels, disaggregated by race, low-income, limited English proficiency, and special needs status. The House bill requires all students to reach the “proficient” level on state tests within twelve years, exempting only pupils with severe special needs. (“Proficient” is one level below the top on a state test.) Every school and district in the nation, as well as the specified subpopulations within each school and district, will have to make one-twelfth of the progress toward proficiency each year. If a school or district that receives federal funding under Title I, Part A of ESEA fails to make this “adequate” progress, it will face interventions and then sanctions. The Senate version differs primarily in that it has a slower, 1 percent per year test score progress requirement for the subgroups.

A series of studies, most released after both houses passed their bills, found that almost every school in the nation will end up being identified as failing if either model is used. According to research by Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger, a key part of the problem is that year-to-year changes in test scores are highly volatile, and decisions made on such changes “resemble a lottery.”

The White House recognized this outcome as politically untenable and began working with a congressional conference committee to design a system that would identify a far more limited number of schools, mostly those serving low-income students. Any formula, however, will have to contend with multiple problems—from technical adequacy to the politically charged issues of whether “too many” or “too few” schools are labeled...