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Standards operating procedure

Will testing push leave children behind or move them ahead?

By Greg Botelho
CNN New York

Federal and state legislatures have passed dozens of bills aimed at improving student performance.

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(CNN) Statistics show that the typical American high school senior can find the Mississippi River on a map but doesn't know the significance of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and isn't aware that Canada is the United States' top trading partner.

To supporters of more standardized testing of American students, the statistics show that the typical American student needs to do better and know more.

Yet opponents of the standardization push sweeping the nation's schools said they worry that the move toward increased assessment testing ignores the growing diversity among American students. There is no such thing, they say, as a 'typical' American student.

"There are so many differences among kids -- the whole idea of public education is managing those differences," said Mark Townsend, president of the Colorado PTA. "Kids are individuals, and teaching is not one size fits all."

Federal and state legislatures have passed dozens of bills in recent years aimed at improving overall performance, calling for assessment tests and mandating standards of success. President Bush signed the most prominent of such legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, in January 2002.

"We're trying to change the culture of American education into a culture of achievement," said Eugene Hickok, the U.S. undersecretary of education who is in charge of implementing the No Child Left Behind law. "This is all about putting children ahead of the system."

With No Child Left Behind mandates starting to take effect this year, U.S. schools are in the midst of some of the most extensive reforms in history.


A breakdown of how American students rated against their peers worldwide in the following subjects:

MATH and SCIENCE: U.S. eighth-graders ranked 19th out of 38 nations in science and 18th of 38 in mathematics in a 1999 study.

READING: U.S. 15-year-olds performed at the international average in 27 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in reading literacy in 2000. They ranked below the average of Finland, Canada and New Zealand, and above that of Greece, Portugal and Luxembourg.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Education

The challenges of meeting these new standards also come at a time when many states and cities are facing budget crises.

"This is making everybody nervous because public education is being told to do a lot of things; there are a lot of mandates on a lot of levels, but resources are scarce," said Townsend, who is also a board member on the National PTA. "The devil is in the details."

'Teaching to the test'

Advocates of standard-based reform emphasize two things: performance and accountability.

"We are trying to make it easier for parents to recognize how well their child is doing, how well their schools are doing," Hickok said, "and to give them the tools to help their kids and schools when things aren't going as well as they should be."

Assessment tests measure what students know about a given subject; test takers must score at or above a certain level to be deemed "proficient." Schools must meet their own benchmarks: If average scores don't measure up, an institution faces an array of sanctions, including leading up to helping any, and perhaps all, students leave for another school.

"The pressure doesn't just rest on the administrators or on the teachers -- there's pressure on the kids too to perform," Townsend said. "You're talking about giving them assessments that a lot of these kids are not comfortable with."

The tests have helped shape statewide and national curriculums -- historically developed on the local level -- as educators focus more on facts, skills and processes likely to show up on tests.

"For the average student, this means their schools and their teachers are clearer about what they expect of them," said Paul Reville, a Harvard University professor and an expert on education policy.

The stress from assessment tests frustrates students and teachers, who call the penalties unfair and feel valuable class time is lost taking exams and "teaching to the test," Townsend said.

State and federal reforms have put pressure on students to excel on assessment tests.

"Sometimes we are labeling kids, sometimes we are labeling entire school communities ... based on standardized test scores," he added. "But that's not necessarily a fair indication of what the school is up to. There's a lot that goes into educating a kid."

'An awkward marriage'

Despite complaints such as Townsend's, most states had adopted some type of standards-based reform before the No Child Left Behind Act. Federal authorities are working closely with state leaders to build on those programs to reflect new national priorities, Hickok said.

Federal leadership is necessary to guarantee all students get a good education and assure U.S. tax dollars are spent wisely, he added. (The federal share in fiscal year 2000 was roughly 9 percent of elementary and secondary school expenditures.)

But the unprecedented "intrusion" of the federal bureaucracy has "caused resentment at both the state and local levels," Reville said. "It's a very awkward marriage.

"Suddenly along comes the federal government and says, 'Wait a minute, you shouldn't be heading in this direction, head in this direction,' " he said. "It's disruptive, and it threatens to overwhelm the system to the point where the system crashes."

In the classroom, reform measures drawn up by politicians inevitably hit roadblocks, Townsend said.

"When you start implementing these [laws], you run into things that didn't quite work the way we thought it was going to work," he said. "That's always the case."

Townsend cited a Colorado case in which experts had to revise a statewide math assessment test radically after a small percentage of students scored "proficient" or better. Many states experience similar "hiccups" in standards-based reforms, he said, but the real dangers come when consequences -- such as schools losing their accreditation -- are tied to the tests.

"You label them, and if that's based on a faulty measure, you have a problem," he said.

Huge demands or worthy goals?

At a summer meeting of a teachers' union, Hickok recalled that an educator protested the No Child Left Behind mandates as impractical. But he said he refuses to buy into that argument.

Hickok: "All the law is asking, in essence, is that a third grader read at a third grade level."

"All the law is asking, in essence, is that a third-grader read at a third-grade level, a fourth-grader does fourth-grade level math," he said. "Given the amount of money we spend, and the amount of potential there is in that third-grader, I don't think that's a huge demand."

In Texas, where Bush was governor in the 1990s, state officials credited similar reforms -- better teacher training, tracking students' development and high standards -- with a 96 percent success rate in a recent standardized reading test of third-graders. Under state law, the 11,748 students who did not pass the test will not advance to fourth grade.

Many school districts will find it difficult, if not impossible, to meet the national criteria, said Reville. School systems already scrambling to find teachers, for instance, might have trouble ensuring that all its teachers are "highly qualified" by 2005 -- meaning they passed exams or extensively studied each subject they teach -- an especially daunting task in rural areas where teachers often take on multiple subjects.

"It's difficult to do [what the No Child Left Behind law calls for] with kids, to go and have a dramatic turnaround," Townsend said. "A lot of variables are beyond the teacher's and the school's control."

Reville applauds the law's intent but calls its goals unrealistic and its implementation flawed. The major economic woes facing states, towns and their schools only aggravate the problem.

"You cannot simply change student performance by mandating it," he said. "Done clumsily, done insensitively, federal intervention here could easily undermine the good work that states [and local communities] have been engaged in."

But Hickok, along with U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and Bush, urges an ambitious, no-holds-barred approach. He insists the worse thing educators can do is make excuses -- about varied student abilities, budget cutbacks, testing pressures or hard-to-reach goals.

"We want every child to be proficient. We might fall short of that, but that should be our aspiration," Hickok said. "The other school of thought is [what student] should we decide to leave behind. I'm not going to answer that question."

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