How the Federal Government is using Test Scores to Defeat Public Schools

It seems at no other time in recent history has so much attention been paid to education in this country. All of this attention, one might expect would have brought support to the public school system and facilitated improvements in morale of the school community. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (unfortunately recently titled, No Child Left Behind) has had quite the opposite effect. As the currently conservative Federal Government appears to be using test scores in new and punitive ways, it would appear that the main goal is to defeat Public Schools, not improve them.

My state, Washington, as most others, has been in the process of trying to reconcile local reform efforts with the demands of the Federal ESEA, and its somewhat newly sharpened teeth.Over the past decade or more, ongoing reform efforts have continued to raise the standards of education for our students and our schools. In Washington state, major reform began in the 1980’s, as education became an item on the political radar. Here, as across the country, various groups began developing studies, and lists of recommendations, and in some cases demands for “reform.” Washington state put together the “Commission on Student Learning” which hosted representatives from political and corporate factions as well as parents, other citizens, politicians, and a very few educators. This group worked on defining new standards and detailed “Essential Learning Goals.”

While I cannot view the effort to raise the bar for learning in our state negatively, what has happened in how the Federal Government is functioning regarding standards enforcement and funding of Public Schools, I believe can only be viewed negatively. To put it bluntly, our state and many if not all others have in some form or another been using one test as their state test. There are many different tests, which assess different things in different ways. Some tests are “minimum competency” tests. This kind of test theoretically, might test to be sure every student can actually read at the 6th grade level in order to graduate. (Keep in mind 6th grade reading level is the target of many written media sources, to be the most accessible to the masses in our country.)

Some states, not being content to use a minimum competency test, decided to use the test to try to set the bar higher. Many different tests have been developed in the 50 states, that demand higher performance from students, in order for students to be deemed academically fit with the skills needed to graduate from high school and enter the higher education or work world.All the states do not use the same test for testing student achievement and/or abilities. Some states use traditional achievement tests. Some states have expended significant resources, like mine has, to develop their own tests. Our state continues to work on the long process of developing a test, which they say assesses a student’s ability to think critically and solve problems as well as assess general knowledge. The result is supposed to be, that rather than judge each student’s success in meeting a minimum level of competency in reading and math; students are being stretched to show gained abilities much higher on a progressive scale. The intention was said to have students be increasingly capable over time and better prepared to enter the workforce. Washington’s test last time I checked was rated as the sixth most difficult test in the nation. Five others are even more challenging, apparently.

Due to the different performance data desired, our state test is more unwieldy to use. Washington state has tried to put this test in place, as the hoop students must jump through in order to graduate from high school. The test initially was put into place in the 4th, 7th and 10th grades. It was sensibly realized that waiting until high school to test progress was rather short sighted, and earlier tests would give more opportunity to apply intervention to those students struggling with basic skills. (It is now being gradually expanded, at no insignificant cost, in abbreviated forms as a spring test in each grade level in various content areas.) Many districts, as it became clear that the test was not going to go away, and in fact would be required for all districts, then bailed out of the more traditional types of standardized achievement tests such as the CTBS or ITBS.

Not all states have gone to these lengths. Some are still using tests, which may only test the lowest acceptable level of skill. Now the problem is this. The Federal Government made some changes to the ESEA, (unfortunately popularly referred to as “No Child Left Behind”) and decided to use each state’s test results of their students’ performance on their chosen state test as an assessment tool for deciding how successful the students across the nation were, comparatively to each other. No consideration was given to the differences philosophically and academically between the various types of tests being used. The Feds appear to be treating all the tests as though they were the same. This unfortunately, is like comparing apples to edible algae. They are not fairly comparable. Again, one assessment tool tests for minimum competency and another tests for much higher levels of proficiency. One test expects everyone to pass, and another is designed so few if any, would ever “ace” the test.

The Federal Government’s teeth now bite into the states like a hostile Pit Bull. Students are expected to meet AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) in a variety of areas each year. This means that a certain percentage of improvement in test performance is expected, each year by every student, by students grouped as a whole, and by each sub-group of students. The formula for calculating this includes not only performance on academic skills, but treats all student sub groups the same, including Special Education, Non-English Language Speakers, transient students from other district/states, etc.

The Federal requirements also factor in attendance, which may be failed if parents refuse to comply with state and school district requirements for sending in an acceptable note of explanation each time a student is absent. It is quite complex, and there are so many disparate criterion, which may not meet muster, it is increasingly likely that a district will not meet AYP as each year passes. Not meeting AYP means that the district will be thrown into a “plan of improvement” which may include loss of Federal funding, sanctions of various types, and an eventual removal of school district employees, elected school board officials, and even takeover of the local district by an outsourced agent of the Federal government to run the school in place of the deemed failing local entity.

Now, all of this would be difficult enough, if the testing were equitably being applied, i.e. one identical test given to all students throughout the nation in an equitable manner. As it stands currently, states giving minimum competency tests stand potentially to do better in the eyes of the Feds, than their beleaguered neighbors giving more difficult tests. I think if the Federal Government really has the best interests of our students at heart, and really gives more than lip service to improving and maintaining public schools, then fair and equitable assessments must be used across the nation to ascertain how students are performing comparatively.

What is going on now has caused many of us to doubt the motives of our Federal government regarding public schools. Our country and political system require an educated public and the ability of most to participate. If we still value a system that allows everyone an opportunity for an education regardless of what socio-economic status their family possesses, then this must be addressed and remedied now.