In the November issue of The Washington Monthly, Thomas Toch argues that President Bush’s education bill is a disaster in the making. At the very core of the problem is Bush’s campaign promise to test every third- through eighth-grade student in public schools and hold the school districts accountable for failure to improve. While testing should be a mandatory component of any education reform proposal, Toch argues that problems arise in Bush’s plan because it fails to mandate a national test.
Toch writes that problems in the Bush plan first arose in April when the Bush model was applied retroactively to test scores in Connecticut, North Carolina and Texas, three states that had significantly improved their test scores in recent years. Under the Bush plan, a vast majority of schools in these three states would be labeled failures.
Rather than shelving the education bill until next year due to the events of Sept. 11th, President Bush stepped up the pressure on congressional leaders to enact a bill before Thanksgiving. Toch argues that this action could actually harm the education standards movement:
So, rather than openly debating the bill’s many defects, Congress is now under intense pressure to pass something-anything-fast. And the likely result will be legislation that hurts the nation’s students more than it helps them, promotes lower rather than high standards; misleads the public about school performance; pushes top teachers out of schools where they are most needed; and drives down the level of instruction in many classrooms.
Toch believes the education bill can be salvaged by adding a national test of reading and math that tests students’ grip on higher-level skills and knowledge, not just “the basics.”
In the Alliance report, “Investing in Excellence: Making Title I Work for All Students,” the Alliance argues that setting higher standards and providing every child with an excellent education to meet these higher standards is paramount. But even as our country pledges to “leave no child behind,” we may be creating a system that will leave behind not just one child but an entire generation of children. Regardless of which method-state or national–is ultimately preferred, the Alliance argues the advent of testing, especially new high stakes high school exit exams, presents a real dilemma for school administrators. Given a watered-down curriculum when younger, some students now enter high school with the reading ability of fifth- or sixth-graders, yet they are now being asked to pass new rigorous exit exams as a prerequisite to high school graduation. Rather than allocating funds to help these older students in danger of failing, school districts practice a form of educational triage-essentially giving up on the current generation of students in an effort to focus their limited resources on a younger generation.
The Alliance for Excellent Education contends that no school system should have to choose between elementary versus middle and high school students. Our report maintains that the federal government should fully fund Title I of the Elementary and Secondary School Act and target part of this increased investment to support reform in middle and high schools. In its 36 years of existence, Title I has never been fully funded. Title I is currently funded at $8.76 billion. Full funding would cost an additional $18.6 billion. Moreover, only 15 percent of Title I funds now go to middle and high schools, even though secondary schools enroll 33 percent of all low-income students. Fully funding Title I would allow school districts to focus on every eligible student, at every grade level.
The Alliance for Excellent Education’s report, “Investing in Excellence: Making Title I Work for All Students,” can be found on the Alliance website. (out of print)
In response to Toch’s article, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) offers the following take on the Administration’s role in obtaining a national test:
We’ve been critical of President Bush and his Administration on many subjects, but we do not doubt his commitment to standards-based education reform, especially for the disadvantaged kids the current system so often fails. Like Nixon going to China, President Bush is perhaps the only political leader in a position to quiet conservative hysteria about national standards and tests, and make his own proposal much more workable.
To view the entire DLC piece on Toch’s article visit their website.
To view “Bush’s Big Test” by Thomas Toch in its entirety, please visit Washington Monthly Online.