The Good, the Bad and the Missing: President Bush's Proposals for Improving Education for Disadvantaged Students

Testing, Standards and Accountability

Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, the core of Bush’s education plan has been this plan for reforming Title I: High standards for schools serving disadvantaged students; annual testing in reading and math for all students in grades 3 through 8, required dissemination of school performance data broken down by race, gender, English language proficiency, disability and socioeconomic status, and sanctions for schools that fail to close the achievement gap. In our May, 2000 report on candidate Bush's education proposals, we criticized his program for lacking appropriate balance, and being heavy on the stick, and light on the carrot. The President’s January 23 document reflects some adjustments in the plan. In particular, the President now proposes corrective action for low-performing schools and districts, and promises federal funds to help states and districts in assisting schools that need improvement. With respect to this cornerstone of the President’s program, there are important aspects that are good, bad, and missing.

The good and the bad

What is best about the President’s plan is his overall emphasis on improving achievement for disadvantaged students and on promoting high standards and accountability for public schools that educate them. In particular, this includes his support for high standards and expectations for schools educating poor students, his proposed requirement of public dissemination of school-by-school data on achievement (broken down as described above), and his suggestion of additional assistance and funds for low-3 performing schools that need improvement in math, science, and other areas. He has proposed high standards in science and history, as well as reading and math. His support for the idea that real consequences should flow when schools fail to make needed improvements is important as well. These aspects of the President’s plan deserve the bipartisan praise they have received.

In several respects, however, the President’s proposals in this area could be harmful to the education of poor children. Depending on how they are translated into actual legislation and practice, they risk over-reliance on narrow annual testing that is not sufficiently aligned with what students are supposed to be taught.

For some time, there has been a wide consensus that improving public schools requires greater accountability. Bush’s standards and accountability proposals are generally consistent with the national, largely bipartisan movement toward instituting standards and structures that make states, districts, schools and students accountable for meeting certain goals. Current Title I law requires schools to apply the same high standards, curricula and expectations to all students, including children who are economically disadvantaged and whose English proficiency is limited. It also requires schools that receive federal funds to have comprehensive assessment and accountability plans in place.

In 1988, Congress tightened the Title I accountability controls. Additional revisions in 1994 strengthened the law still further by requiring states to have comprehensive accountability systems for all schools participating in Title I and providing for both incentives to help failing schools and sanctions in the event these incentives did not bring about the desired improvements. Implementation and development of these systems is being phased in, with full compliance required as of this current school year.

To demonstrate the adequate yearly progress required by the 1994 law, a Title I school’s economically disadvantaged and limited-English proficient children must show improved performance. Progress may be measured by dropout, retention and attendance rates in addition to test scores. Tests are to be administered at least three times, once each in the later elementary grades (3-5), in middle school (6-8) and again in high school (9-12) in all subjects included in the state’s goals and standards, not just in reading and math and in grades 3-8 as in the President’s proposals.3

The states’ progress in bringing curricula, standards, and assessment into alignment has been slow. It is a laborious task, and yet progress is being made. As of October, 2000, 48 states had content standards in math and reading, but only 25 states had approved performance standards. Only seven states had approved assessment systems in place, while another nine had received conditional approval. Clearly there is much more to be done and the states should be encouraged to move this process forward as quickly as possible.4

All testing is not created equal, of course, but some criteria should be self-evident. As noted education expert William Taylor wrote, “Of course, all of this will work only if the tests are fair, nondiscriminatory, and representative of what teachers cover in class, as called for by the joint standards issued by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Council on Measurement in Education. In cases where students test poorly on material they were never taught or taught only poorly, the school, not the students should be held accountable. Unfortunately many states and the federal government are ignoring safeguards designed to protect students in these circumstances.”5 Under current Title I law, students are entitled to multiple opportunities to succeed on high-stakes assessments and they are to be tested only on material that has been adequately covered in the curriculum. What is most needed is enforcement of the present Title I requirements, and provision of the resources required to provide all students with the opportunity to learn.6
There is a serious risk of slowing down progress if a new testing requirement is imposed without careful work to ensure that testing, standards, and curriculum are aligned and without the safeguards now in Title I.

Bush’s testing proposals are modeled on one part of Texas’ education reform efforts, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, an annual set of examinations in grades 3-8 and a 10th grade reading, writing and math exit exam taken in preparation for graduation.7 The TAAS is a “high stakes” test, meaning that students will not graduate until they pass the 10th grade exam, and, starting in 2003, third-graders who do not pass their first TAAS will be held back.8 The TAAS has vociferous supporters and opponents and has no doubt had both positive and negative effects on Texas’ reform efforts, and evidence has been gathered to support both sides of this argument. Although many Texas educators are undoubtedly seeking to apply TAAS conscientiously, the pressure produced by narrow, annual, high-stakes testing has had some negative consequences.9

President Bush’s own faith in the TAAS should be tempered by the fact that while students may be able to pass the TAAS, Texas SAT and ACT scores remain among the lowest in the nation,10 and only 43 percent of Texas Algebra I students passed their end of- course algebra test in the 1998-1999 school year11 – even as TAAS scores were on the rise.12 On the whole, although Texas students have made some progress on nationally normed achievement tests, they have made less progress than one might have been led to expect, judging by their improvement in TAAS scores. In fact, while NAEP test results in math have shown significant improvement (for both fourth- and eighth-graders), there has been no statistically significant improvement in reading for Texas students during the period (1992-1998) for which NAEP state-level data are available.13 It is clear that whatever educational improvement seems to be indicated by the TAAS is not necessarily borne out by any similar improvements on other standardized tests.14

Properly utilized, testing is an important measurement tool and we do not wish to denigrate its importance in school accountability efforts, as under Title I. Policymakers should consider provisions like those in HPTI for judicious use of testing in a broad range5 of subjects as part of a process that provides necessary information for monitoring schools’ performance on an annual and longer-term basis and making them accountable for results, and that ensures that testing, standards, and curriculum are properly aligned.

What’s missing

The most troubling aspect of Bush’s education proposals is not what he says about accountability, but rather, what he does not say. The system he proposes seems clearly unbalanced: Schools that cannot meet standards within three years face the loss of money and students, and yet the larger education system is not being held sufficiently accountable for providing those schools with the human and physical resources necessary to meet the new, rigorous standards.

The experience in Texas itself provides a clear illustration of this conclusion. During and since the campaign, Bush has argued that his education proposals will narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their advantaged peers nationally, as he claims his programs did in Texas while he was governor. The record is clear, however, that Texas’ achievements were not the result of only testing-and-accountability changes, but instead were produced by a broader education reform effort that also led to increased resources being available to poor children. These changes came about because of action by people in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government that began long before 1994, when George W. Bush became governor, and which Governor Bush continued to support. This included making important reductions in class size in high poverty schools and providing much more equitable school funding. More than any other, the most critically important thing that is “missing” from Bush’s national plans for disadvantaged students is any specific proposal for significantly increased resources to improve education for disadvantaged students.15 In a modification of his campaign proposals, the President is now suggesting some additional funds targeted to needy schools and districts, but the specifics of how much assistance would be provided and in what manner remain missing.

Another key element that is missing from the President’s plan concerns standards and assessments beyond his campaign proposals covering reading and math in grades 3-8. By contrast, Title I requires schools to measure progress in all subjects included in the state’s standards, and at least once for each level of school, including high school. In the January 23 document he also calls for standards to be established in history and science, and recent, unpublished reports indicate Presidential support for testing in science as well.16 It is critical that properly designed standards and assessments apply to all academic subjects and all grade levels. Particularly important are effective standards and assessments for high schools, where progress made during elementary years can be seriously eroded without effective instruction. At the high school level, moreover, using such measures as dropout rates can be very useful with respect to accountability.

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