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NCLB Outrages

Two Views on Standardized Testing

Is standardized testing the correct answer? NO:
Positive spin requires look below surface

By Monty Neill & Lisa Guisbond

Combatants in the battle over the controversial No Child Left Behind law await next week's state-by-state test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Both sides seek ammunition to bolster their views. Parents, educators and others hoping to learn whether NCLB helps or harms education will need to work hard to find answers amid the welter of numbers and spin.

The NAEP results will be based on reading and math tests given to a sample of students at grades four and eight in every state. In theory, by looking at an independent national measure we can learn whether children are actually gaining knowledge or merely being drilled to improve scores on their state's exams.

If the past is any guide, expect an onslaught of cherry-picked statistics from officials eager to justify high-stakes testing policies. As always, it is important to examine the data, rather than accept official sound bites.

Reactions to a recent NAEP report which uses a different test on a separate sample of students at ages 9, 13 and 17 to measure long-term trends gave a hint of what to look for. Scores were up in reading and math for 9-year-olds and in math for 13-year-olds. Some racial achievement gaps narrowed.

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration took credit for the gains even though NCLB was not in effect for most of the period the report covered.

More nuanced and sobering analyses were lost amid the self-congratulatory bluster. For example, NAEP long-term trend scores were flat to lower for all racial groups at age 17. This contradicts the claim that imposing high school graduation exams improves achievement. Reading scores at age 13 also were unchanged. Gains for blacks and Hispanics came after larger score increases in the 1970s and 1980s, which then turned down in the 1990s as testing became a national obsession.

Over the past three decades, some racial gaps on the NAEP tests actually widened. NAEP gains for younger students were promoted as an unquestioned good. But concerns about their deeper meaning are often unaddressed. Researchers suggest that math score increases in the early grades may be due to rote learning that is not accompanied by the conceptual understanding needed to apply math. If so, these gains are unlikely to lead to advanced mastery.

The gains may also have come at the expense of other learning: science, social studies and art are often reduced or eliminated in the push to boost test scores. Meanwhile, graduation rates are actually declining in Southern states, where stakes have been highest. Multiple studies show narrowing the curriculum and increasing dropouts occur most often in schools serving low-income and minority students.

Even if NAEP score gains in the early grades were an unqualified good, the question remains whether high-stakes testing produced the increases. Several independent studies have concluded that states with the most intensive test-based accountability were less likely to post gains on NAEP than states less focused on testing.

These are all good reasons to be wary of any positive spin put on state-level NAEP results by partisans of high-stakes exams. In fact, evidence is accumulating that test-and-punish policies produce minimal if any score gains in some subjects at a high cost to other learning. The focus on testing also obscures evidence that different approaches have achieved superior school improvement results with fewer toxic side effects.

More than 60 national civil rights, education and religious groups have endorsed a statement calling for an overhaul of NCLB. Political posturing about NAEP state-by-state results is unlikely to reverse this real long-term trend: the growing opposition to high-stakes testing.

Monty Neill is the co-executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). Lisa Guisbond is a testing reform analyst at FairTest.

Is standardized testing the correct answer? YES
Accountability leads to improved results

By Margaret Spellings

Testing has been a valuable part of the educational process since the days of Socrates. There is nothing new or scary about it. It lets teachers and parents know how kids are doing and lets students see the rewards of hard work.

That's why assessments are part of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law's emphasis on high standards and accountability has led to a sharp focus on results.

Students are no longer overlooked and shuffled from grade to grade, whether they have learned the material or not. The achievement gap between rich and poor and black and white is no longer treated as a sad fact of life, but rather as a problem to be solved. As President Bush likes to say, what gets measured gets done.

Regrettably, not everyone agrees. The group FairTest denounces achievement testing, including the assessment widely considered the gold standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card. FairTest claims on its Web site that "standardized tests are of little use for serious academic improvement efforts."

Don't tell that to students and teachers in Georgia or Maryland, where the results this year were called "stunning," "incredible" and "amazing" by educators. In fact, nearly every state in the nation has reported academic improvement since NCLB was passed.

Since its inception in 1969, NAEP has performed a valuable service by warning Americans of the unacceptably large score gaps between students of different racial and ethnic groups.

In its latest incarnation, the Nation's Report Card measures more than 600,000 students in grades four and eight in reading and math every two years. NAEP's rigorous methodology and impartial findings have earned the group respect and praise from all sides of the political and educational debates. The New York Times said it is "considered the best measure of the nation's long-term education trends."

This year's long-term trend results were the best in the report card's history. America's 9-year-olds scored an all-time high in mathematics and reading, as did 13-year-olds in math. More than half of the reading progress by younger children in the past 30 years was made in the past five.

Reading scores for African-American 9-year-olds jumped an astounding 14 points between 1999 and 2004. Math scores for Hispanic 9-year-olds rose 17 points in the same period. Math scores for Hispanic and African-American 13-year-olds climbed six and 11 points, respectively.

President Bush and I now want to apply these successful reforms to our high schools. The data show high school students lagging behind. Unfortunately, groups such as FairTest want education reform stopped dead in its tracks.

Next week, the main NAEP and state-by-state results will be released. The No Child Left Behind Act calls on all states to participate. Because states determine their own academic standards under the law, it makes sense for educators and policy-makers to compare states' performance so they can share and adopt best practices.

Of course, there are other elements to a quality education. NAEP has measured a few of those as well. According to NAEP, more young children are reading 20 or more pages a day. NAEP has found that students who watched three hours of television or less per day scored higher on reading tests than those who watched more. Students who regularly discussed their studies with their parents also scored higher.

In his book "Achievement Matters," Hugh Price, former president of the National Urban League, tells parents to "make certain your children can pass and better yet, excel on those exams given by states and school districts to determine whether students have the academic knowledge and skills to advance from grade to grade and eventually graduate from high school."

That's good advice. Our duty as a nation mirrors our duty as parents: to help our children learn and succeed and to identify what works. NAEP and No Child Left Behind are helping us fulfill that duty.

Margaret Spellings is U.S. secretary of education.

— Monty Neill & Lisa Guisbond and Margaret Spellings
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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