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NCLB Outrages

School Testing Across U. S. Is Apples, Oranges

Ohanian Comment: And now we get to a key point of NCLB: the national test Bill Clinton fought for but didn't get. Don't miss the quote from the Fordham Foundation. I mention Clinton just to remind people that this is a corporate agenda, not just a Republican one. Democrats' hands are just as dirty as Republicans'.

The reporter claims that NAEP is a "well-respected test." Hmmm. Why didn't she talk to Gerald Bracey? Or read his research columns in Phi Delta Kappan?

And look at the money states are spending on tests.

Fifty states. More than 100 state tests. One question: Why?

The patchwork of state tests that gauge student progress under federal law is under scrutiny as Hoosier parents await their children's Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus scores this month.

Educators have long criticized state testing systems as too rigid, along with the landmark federal school reform law that uses them to hold schools accountable.

But many education policy experts say the freedom that states have to choose their own tests and passing scores undermines the No Child Left Behind Act. Here's why:

The breadth of state tests, their degree of difficulty and the range of what constitutes a passing score make it impossible to compare the progress of students in one state with those in another.

The federal law has loopholes that many states have manipulated to improve their standing in the eyes of the federal government.

The tests are expected to cost states up to $5 billion in the next six years, an expenditure that critics worry will rob schools of money and pad the pockets of major U.S. testing companies.

Sentiment for a nationwide accountability test is expected to grow nationally amid concern that a flawed state test system will chip away at the federal law's accountability goals.

Or when states start feeling the burn of the federally mandated "remedies" and start scrutinizing one another.

"I think it's time," said Luis Ramos, who was appointed by President Bush last month to the bipartisan National Assessment Governing Board, which is made up of state policy-makers, school officials, teachers, business representatives and taxpayers. "We owe it to our taxpayers, to our teachers, to our higher education institutions and to our schools to know how well we've done in educating students."

Opponents argue that a national test already exists.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress for fourth- and eighth-graders is a well-respected test that has been around for more than three decades. Indiana students take the test, but it is not required everywhere.

The test is known as "the nation's report card," but it functions largely to help the U.S. government validate the quality of state tests. For example, a state that has low NAEP scores but a high percentage of schools that meet federal standards for progress draws suspicion.

Frustrated researchers

That imperfect system of checks and balances frustrates independent education researchers, such as Indiana University's Jonathan Plucker.

"I'm very sympathetic to the home-rule perspective, but this is a national law with high-stakes penalties," said Plucker, director of IU's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. "If that's the case, there really does have to be some comparability across states."

Ramos, whose education board sets policy for NAEP, wants an expanded version of the nation's report card to replace state tests.

"I would like to be able to identify the school district that I represent and find out the demographics, the per-student spending, the qualities of that particular district, and ask the question, 'Are there others like my district? And on the NAEP test, which ones are doing better and why?' " said Ramos, a Pennsylvania state board of education member who works for an energy company in Allentown, Pa.

The concept of a widely taken national accountability test was shot down during the administrations of President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.

The idea surfaces periodically, but the response has been lukewarm from both political parties.

Democrats don't believe in high-stakes testing without the money to improve schools. Republicans traditionally don't want the federal government to meddle in state education.

That's why authors of the No Child Left Behind Act didn't consider a national accountability test, education officials say.

"I truly am a state-rights activist," said Indiana Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who will become House Education Committee chairman in the next legislative session. "Show me where the federal Constitution gives legislation authority over education."

Indiana education officials say a national test invites a fight about the best way to build a national curriculum.

States now have their own standards. Most hire private companies like CTB/McGraw Hill in Monterey, Calif., to design, distribute and grade their tests. Some work with nonprofit groups like the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. And a smaller percentage design their own.

In Indiana, state education officials will pay CTB/McGraw Hill more than $26 million this year for the ISTEP-Plus.

Indiana teachers and Department of Education consultants have input on the annual tests. So do two review committees, including one that searches for bias.

Indiana has built a national reputation for being ahead of the curve, with a strong statewide test and accountability standards that preceded the No Child Left Behind Act.

A state report card due out next month from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education reform group, is expected to back that reputation.

The same research group, however, has found that other states play with the system so that fewer schools fail to meet federal improvement standards. A study last year found that too many states set low "cut scores," the percentage of test questions that must be correct for a student to be labeled proficient.

Fewer schools failing

Some state tests are easier than others, and some states count fewer minority, poor and disabled children so that schools are less likely to fail.

And fewer schools are failing, studies show. Twenty-three percent fewer schools failed to meet federal standards for improvement this year, according to a National Education Association survey of 43 states (which didn't include Indiana).

Even states that have low educational reputations have surpassed educationally superior states when it comes to meeting federal standards. About 5 percent of schools in Louisiana, for example, were declared to be failing under federal law, compared with 20 percent in Maine, where student NAEP scores are in the nation's Top 10.

Louisiana education officials said they changed the standards because the state's definition of proficient was higher than the federal government's.

But even critics of the state testing system say the fear of pulling control of education from schools and dropping it into federal officials' hands will likely trip up efforts to switch to a national test.

Local control "is an artifact of the traditional American education system," said Justin Torres, research director of the Fordham Foundation. "Unless you're going to do away with that, it's unlikely that you're going to have a national test."

Call Star reporter Staci Hupp at (317) 444-6253.

— Staci Hupp
Indianapolis Star


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