To what question is more testing the correct answer?
by Jim Horn
The initial passage and continuing support for No Child Left Behind was
built on a rationale based exclusively on the potential for positive
results from the law’s implementation.
In order to sell NCLB to those who remained unmoved by promises of
accountability, a social reformist rhetoric was developed around the
core message that NCLB would offer academic support for the poor, the
neglected, and the minority children who had been left to languish in
In short, the purported humanitarian dividend of NCLB focused on closing
the achievement gap between the haves and the have-never-hads, even
though the stated performance goals of NCLB do not mention achievement gaps.
It is not for me to say who did and who did not believe this marketing
strategy, but no one can question its effectiveness in swaying reluctant
supporters and in dismissing non-supporters as weak naysayers or
closeted racists. Proponents of NCLB charged skeptics with the “soft
bigotry of low expectations.” Even the name of the bill made resistance
difficult. Who, after all, wants to admit to leaving a child behind?
NCLB opponents, a constituency that seems to be growing at a rate
similar to that of suburban parents finding their schools labeled as
failures, have not wilted under the unwavering verbal campaign waged by
NCLB advocates. They continue to question the sustainability of a policy
requiring schools, particularly poverty-stricken schools, to achieve 100
percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
These “softly-bigoted” critics, as it were, point beyond the soaring
rhetoric of NCLB to the demonstrable consequences of these unattainable
goals for poor, immigrant, and disabled populations.
They stubbornly talk about the crushing effects of repeated failures for
an increasing number of schools and schoolchildren, who are routinely
left behind in the wake of a policy stamped with the “hard racism of
Regardless of which side one takes in this debate, it is clear that 100
percent proficiency in reading and math, even if achievable, will not
end achievement gaps -- no more than it will end income and opportunity
gaps, which are the primary sources for the achievement gaps to begin
with. That is unless we are willing to place a ceiling on achievement at
the basic level of proficiency that NCLB performance goals call for.
That hardly seems likely in the current testing scores arms race that is
sweeping America, as parents and communities use the available resources
they can muster to accelerate their own children’s advantages, thus
moving them on ahead of those we insist are not to be left behind.
No one doubts that the pressure has been ratcheted up for even more
tests and higher scores across the country, from state departments to
local school boards to administrators and all the way down to the
nail-biting teachers walking among the racing hearts and furrowed brows
of third graders taking these high-stakes tests for the first time.
In 2000, Louisiana was the only state to use a single test to make
promotion decisions in elementary school. Now 10 states are doing this,
with nine of them among the top 10 in African-American or Hispanic
Twenty states currently require high school exit exams, including the 10
states with the lowest graduation rates. By 2009, 25 states will require
Another problem that has emerged since standardized testing was kicked
into high gear by NCLB involves a disturbing and continuing trend toward
school resegregation and the resulting homogenization of school populations.
It did not take NCLB to begin the resegregation of American public
schools. That process started in the 1970s as a result of a number of
factors, not the least of which were some critical federal court cases
that struck down or watered down federal desegregation orders.
These cases climaxed in 1992 with Freeman v. Pitts, when the Supreme
Court effectively relinquished federal jurisdiction to intervene in
situations that result in de facto segregation.
We are now beginning to see how NCLB is contributing to this troubling
trend of resegregation.
In a recent op-ed piece in the Oregonian, Carol Berkley, a teacher in
Portland, passionately protests the test-induced phenomenon in Portland
that threatens years of conscious effort to integrate the city’s
neighborhoods. Test scores in Portland are now having an impact on
property values and home-buying patterns.
Because schools with sizable minorities are finding themselves
increasingly on the watch list for failing to meet adequate yearly
progress (AYP), students in these schools, both white and minority, are
given the opportunity to transfer to other, high-scoring Portland schools.
This creates a brain drain and leads to white flight from the
watch-listed schools in integrated neighborhoods, while it discourages
new families from moving into these neighborhoods if they can afford to
As Berkley sums up in her article, “the mandate threatens a de facto
redefinition of the discriminatory practice of redlining, from one based
on mortgage loans within targeted neighborhoods to one based on test
scores in targeted neighborhoods.”
The generalizations drawn from failure of schools to meet AYP in any of
the 31 performance category sub-groups leave the public impression that
these are failing schools in failed communities.
In order to join the up and coming rather than the down and out,
affluent families planning to move to Portland or any other city simply
need to check the test scores published alongside the percentages of
minority students on Internet sites sponsored by the same companies that
rate stocks and bonds. Test scores are providing a convenient vehicle to
efficiently resegregate American schools without ever uttering the word
Research from California also shows how a high-stakes testing policy,
when combined with requirements to dissagregate data, could discourage
diversity in schools. A 2003 study of California elementary schools
found a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and test scores.
That is hardly surprising, but the study also found that the number of
subgroups in a school significantly affects the odds of meeting AYP.
Regardless of a school’s socioeconomic status, there is a decreased
likelihood for schools to meet AYP as the number of testing subgroups
increases. Thus, there is a clear incentive to discourage the presence
of populations that are likely to threaten a school’s chances of making
Even as pressures mount, testing targets rise, and more schools fail,
there seems to be no quenching of the thirst for more testing in
schools, with all its purported benefits for those whose suffering will
be lessened if they survive the treatment.
Now we see the education industry and many corporate leaders arguing for
more testing in the high schools as a way to somehow bring about an end
to the exporting and importing of high-tech labor. On the face of it, it
would seem that this problem might be more readily solved by decisions
of corporate CEOs than by struggling high school students, thus making
more “reform” altogether unnecessary.
Perhaps there is a dawning realization that blaming the schools for
botched economic policies may constitute successful diversions that mask
more insidious agendas.
But as a basis for school improvement or for democratic ideals, these
testing solutions may reflect, in fact, a dangerous and cynical
expression of an oppressive form of social engineering paraded about
under the banner of economic and cultural liberation.
Jim Horn is assistant professor of educational foundations at Monmouth
University in West Long Branch, N.J. He also hosts the weblog, Schools
Matter, http:// schoolsmatter.blogspot.com/.
National School Board Association Newsletter
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES