Equity Claims Don’t Pass the Test

By Stan Karp

Supporters of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation have made a series of claims about how various aspects of the new law will help kids, parents, and schools, especially in poor communities. This month’s ESEA Watch takes a closer look at these claims. (Note: ESEA stands for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a combination of the major federal educational programs. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the political label given by the Bush Administration to the version of the ESEA that was renewed last year. ESEA and NCLB refer to the same set of federal programs and regulations and are often used interchangeably.)

Claim: Annual standardized testing is the key to bringing school improvement and accountability to all schools. “For too long,” says the Department of Education, “America’s education system has not been accountable for results, and too many children have been locked in underachieving schools and left behind. … Testing will raise expectations for all students and ensure that no child slips through the cracks.”

Reality: A huge increase in federally mandated testing will not provide the services and strategies our schools and students need to improve. Most states and local districts have already dramatically increased the use of standardized tests over the past two decades, without solving the problems of poor schools. Some estimates are that the new federal law will require states to give more than 200 additional tests at a cost of more than $7 billion.

Many studies show that standardized testing does not lead to lasting increases in student achievement and may in fact reduce it. Researchers at Arizona State University recently completed the largest study ever done on the issue. They concluded that “rigorous testing that decides whether students graduate, teachers win bonuses and schools are shuttered, an approach already in place in more than half the nation, does little to improve achievement and may actually worsen academic performance and dropout rates.” (New York Times, 12/28/02)

When schools become obsessed with test scores, they narrow the focus of what teachers do in classrooms and limit their ability to serve the broader needs of children and their communities. Over-reliance on testing also diverts attention and resources from more promising school improvement strategies like smaller class size, creative curriculum reform, and collaborative professional development. High-stakes tests push struggling students out of school, and encourage schools to adopt developmentally inappropriate practices for younger children in an effort to “get them ready for the tests.” Overuse of testing can also encourage cheating scandals and makes schools and students vulnerable to inaccurate and, at times, corrupt practices by commercial testing firms.

Claim: The new law will use test scores to hold schools accountable for serving all students. For the first time, the spotlight will be put on achievement gaps that schools have traditionally covered up, and schools will be forced to address inequalities in student achievement that they have failed to deal with in the past.

Reality: The Bush plan uses achieve-ment gaps to label schools as “failures,” but does not provide the resources or support needed to eliminate them. The law includes an unrealistic and under-funded federal mandate that by 2014, 100 percent of all students (including special education students and English-language learners), must be proficient on state tests. Schools that don’t reach increasingly difficult test score targets face an escalating series of sanctions. Instead of an appropriate educational strategy, this is part of a calculated political campaign to leave schools and children behind as the federal government retreats from the nation’s historic commitment to improving universal public schooling for all kids.

Inequality in test scores is one indicator of school performance. But test scores also reflect other inequalities in resources and opportunities that exist in the larger society and in schools themselves. Ten percent of white children live in poverty, while about 35 percent of Black and Latino children live in poverty. Why isn’t the Bush Administration demanding an end to this kind of inequality? Students in poor schools, on average, have thousands of dollars less spent on their education than those in wealthier schools. About 14 percent of whites don’t have health insurance, but more than 20 percent of Blacks and 30 percent of Latinos have no health insurance. Unemployment rates for Blacks and Latinos are nearly double what they are for whites. Can you imagine the federal government saying all crime must be eliminated in 12 years or we’ll privatize the police? All citizens must be healthy in 12 years or we will shut down the health care system?

Some politicians are trying to turn the problems of poor schools into a campaign to destroy public education. We need to ask: When did the same politicians who oppose civil rights, affirmative action, more spending for social programs, and universal health care suddenly become champions of poor Black and brown children and their families?

Claim: The new law mandates that students historically exempted from the testing pool, such as special education students and English language learners, must now take tests and have their scores counted. These groups also must achieve “100 percent proficiency” within 12 years. This will force schools to improve student achievement for groups of students who have previously been left behind.

Reality: The inclusion of special education and Limited English Proficient students in the testing calculations will make it harder for schools to reach the unreasonable “adequate yearly progress” targets, but will do nothing to improve educational services to these children. The law’s punitive preoccupation with high-stakes testing will narrow curriculum focus and impoverish educational experience for all children. It will also force students to take inappropriate and unhelpful mandated assessments, like tests in languages they don’t understand.

If the federal government wanted to help special needs students it would fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as called for repeatedly by education advocates. (The federal government currently provides less than half the funding authorized by the IDEA). It would also support effective bilingual education programs for English language learners and encourage assessment practices that promote content learning and language acquisition simultaneously. Instead, the new regulations will greatly restrict the use of effective bilingual education programs and promote a kind of “English only” intolerance.

Claim: The new federal law gives parents in failing schools more choices.

Reality: The law gives parents the right to take students and money out of struggling schools and to leave those schools behind. But it does not guarantee them any new places to go. In districts where some schools are labeled “failing” and some are not, the new law may force increased class sizes by transferring students without creating new capacity. “No Child Left Behind” does not invest in building new schools in failing districts. It does not make rich districts open their doors to students from poor districts. And it doesn’t give poor parents any more control over school bureaucracies than food stamps give them over the supermarkets. It’s a “supply-side” fraud designed to manufacture a demand for vouchers and ultimately to transfer funds and students to profit-making private school corporations.

Claim: The new ESEA gives poor schools more resources to improve.

Reality: Overall, the new law boosted Title I funding for poor schools by about 20 percent. But much of that money will be used to take kids and resources out of poor schools through transfers and payments to private providers of “supplemental” services. (See Keeping Public Schools Public) Moreover, the test performance targets set by the law are so unrealistic, that in some states as many as 90 percent of all schools — not just poor schools — may be unable to meet them and may ultimately lose federal funds as a result. (New York Times, 11/27/02)

The amounts targeted for internal improvement of “failing schools” are also unclear and uneven. In New Jersey, 274 schools will share $3 million this year in new federal aid targeted for improvement — less than $11,000 per school. In Chicago, 179 schools will share $35 million which yields a more significant average of about $195,000 per school.

But even these funds are threatened by the Administration’s war budget. And as more schools are put on the list of “failures,” the limited funds will be spread thinner and thinner.

As Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators said, “What happens is you create a situation where there are so many schools failing that there is no support for them. The administration likes to talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations and how this law fights that. But what about the hard bigotry of high expectations without adequate resources?” (Washington Post, 1/2/03)

Claim: The new law puts real pressure on districts to change bureaucratic business as usual, which is why it is generating so much heat.

Reality: The law is generating increasing heat because the incoherence and irrationality of the Bush plan is becoming more evident. Governors and education commissioners from Louisiana to Nebraska are belatedly trying to tell the federal government that it has no business defining high-stakes test score targets for individual schools and districts and for imposing under-funded, top-down school reform mandates from Washington. The federal government provides only seven percent of school funding, but is using federal regulation to drive school policy in conservative directions at the state, district, and school levels. Historically, when it came to things like integration, busing, or defining what kids should learn, politicians, especially Republicans, have always declared that schools should be “locally controlled.” But the new ESEA is the most intrusive federal education law in history. The only thing that’s changed is the ideological commitment of some politicians to reform public education out of existence through a strategy of “test and burn.” As researcher Gerald Bracey put it, “ESEA is a weapon of mass destruction and its target is the public schools.”

Stan Karp (stankarp@aol.com) teaches in Paterson, N.J. He is a Rethinking Schools editor.

Spring 2003