Tests Losing Value
"[NCLB] is ill-fitting and doesn't follow the values we have with regard to teaching and testing and learning."
--Betty J Sternberg, Connecticut Education Commissioner
After spending five years and millions of dollars measuring schoolchildren on the latest version of the Connecticut Mastery Test, what progress have public schools made?
State officials say they can't be sure.
The reason? The federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The law - the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda - has altered test procedures and required testing thousands of additional students with learning problems or English-speaking difficulties, making it difficult to compare Connecticut's latest scores with previous results, officials said.
"The [federal] rules keep changing about which youngsters to test from year to year," state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg said. "It's really tough to say if you've been having an effect because you're testing such different groups of kids."
Today, the state is scheduled to issue its annual report on statewide results of the reading, mathematics and writing test.
The report is being released as Sternberg and other officials, including state legislators, step up criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act. Like several other states, Connecticut has clashed with the federal government over interpretation of the 3-year-old law, highlighting sharp differences of opinion on how to measure academic progress, particularly on matters such as testing students with disabilities and children who do not speak English.
In recent weeks, the U.S. Department of Education has signaled a willingness to reconsider some of those questions, but has said some issues, such as requiring an expansion of Connecticut's testing program, are not negotiable.
The federal law, Sternberg said, "is ill-fitting and doesn't follow the values we have with regard to teaching and testing and learning."
Connecticut's 20-year-old mastery test of fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders is regarded as among the most rigorous in the nation. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings rejected Sternberg's request for a waiver on the federal law's requirement to expand testing to also include grades 3, 5 and 7.
The state is gearing up to add the new tests next year - something officials say will cost millions of dollars without much benefit.
"It is not going to provide us with any more information than we already know," state Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, said as the state Senate passed a resolution last week urging Congress and Bush to amend No Child Left Behind and allow waivers for states such as Connecticut with strong records of academic success.
Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, described No Child Left Behind as "an historic intrusion of the federal government onto states' administration of education."
Other states, including some that are strong Republican strongholds for Bush, have challenged the law, asking for more flexibility. Bush's home state of Texas, for example, has decided to follow its own rules for counting special education students in test score results rather than the federal government's stricter standard. The Utah Senate's Republican caucus told Bush that Utah is prepared to pass a bill allowing state education laws to take precedence over portions of the federal law.
The challenges from some states "are the manifestation of some of the frustration they're feeling when they're told there will be flexibility [in the law], and then they run into a brick wall," said David L. Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That organization issued a report last month saying the law is too rigid and creates "too many ways to fail."
The report said, "This assertion of federal authority into an area historically reserved to the states has had the effect of curtailing additional state innovations and undermining many that had occurred during the past three decades."
No Child Left Behind calls for a shake-up of schools that fail to make sufficient gains. The law is aimed at closing the academic achievement gap that finds some groups of students, such as racial minorities and children from low-income families, lagging behind others.
Schools that receive federal Title I money to help educate poor children and fail to make sufficient progress face increasingly stiff sanctions under the law, eventually including a complete reorganization of the school. A school can be cited even if a single group - such as special education students or low-income children - fails to make adequate progress. Many of the schools that have been singled out so far are from urban areas that include large numbers of low-income families, special education students and non-English speaking children.
Across the country, many educators have complained that the law is punitive and puts too much emphasis on testing.
"These kids are just being tested to death," said Joanna Brother, a fifth-grade teacher at Edgerton School in New London, where she teaches children who speak little or no English. "How do you possibly measure a child's academic knowledge in a language the child doesn't speak?"
In Connecticut, Sternberg said the state already has a strong testing system to identify which students and which schools need help.
Among other things, Sternberg has asked U.S. officials to allow selected special education students to take tests below their grade level - a practice Connecticut schools have used for years. Under No Child Left Behind, the state not only has tested thousands more special education students, but is required to test them at their grade level.
Sternberg has been backed by other state officials, including Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Rell, through a spokesman, issued a statement saying, "It seems like education officials in Washington want us to spend more money on tests when Connecticut has been a leader in testing since the mid-1980s. ... The best way to meet [students'] needs is to put more resources in the classroom, not conduct more testing."
Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education, sharply disagreed with views expressed in a commentary in The Courant last week by Spellings, the U.S. education secretary.
Taylor disputed Spellings' claim that Connecticut's lowest-performing students in the past were "hidden behind district-wide averages." Long before No Child Left Behind, Taylor said, Connecticut issued annual reports detailing the performance of various groups of students such as low-income children and members of minority groups.
Spellings also criticized Sternberg's request for a waiver on testing students annually in every grade, suggesting that "adults in charge of [children's] education surely know better."
Taylor said there is no evidence that annual tests in every grade will speed up the growth of low-performing students, adding that, "Secretary Spellings' use of the political campaign tactics of distortion and sarcasm is not worthy of the issues or her office."
Robert A. Frahm
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES