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Op-Ed

An Education Plan with the Right Goal, Wrong Yardstick

Thomas Toch

Here’s a photo op the White House would like to stage before
year’s end: President Bush, in the Rose Garden, signing into
law his bold plan to reform the nation’s public schools with
more testing and tougher school accountability. Flanking him
are members of Congress from both parties, including some
surprising backers of the testing legislation—liberal
Democrats.

It seems like a nice picture—a display of bipartisanship on an issue of broad
concern to voters. Getting some liberals behind the push for high
standards—and tough consequences for schools that don’t meet them—would
seem to be a real coup for the president. After all, most liberals, including major
civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, tend to be down on standardized
testing, arguing—misguidedly—that it only hurts poor and minority kids in lousy
schools. But recently, a few influential voices on the left have broken with that
thinking and backed Bush in promoting a testing plan in the belief that it would
spur schools to help disadvantaged students.

Unfortunately—and ironically—the zeal of these
converts is leading both Congress and kids down a
dangerous road. The testing plan that they have
ardently supported is as ill-conceived as it is
well-intentioned. Now being finalized by a House and
Senate conference committee, it would mislead the
public about school performance and undercut the
movement for higher standards in education by
wrongly labeling nearly every public elementary school
in the nation a failure.

The key problem is that the House and Senatebills passed last spring would
require schools to raise the percentage of students passing state tests every
year. And to ensure that schools don’t neglect any students along the way, the
conference committee is likely to include the additional requirement that schools
have to make the same yearly progress with specific groups of students, such
as Hispanics, African Americans and students from low-income homes. A
school would thus be labeled failing if even one of its subgroups didn’t make
enough progress in a given year.

But there’s a catch: Test scores never rise every single year, even at great
schools. Rather, they fluctuate, even when long-term trends are positive. That’s
because a host of factors that often have nothing to do with school quality—a
group of students markedly smarter than the previous year’s, a large number of
students who are sick during testing week, etc.—have asignificant influence on a
school’s scores. Recent studies suggest that these factors account for as much
as 70 percent of year-to-year school score differences. In this light, one study
done over the summer by researchers at StanfordUniversity, Dartmouth College
and a think tank in Cambridge, Mass., estimated that 98 percent of the nation’s
elementary schools would flunk the Senate’s standard for schools and 100
percent would flunk the House’s standard.

White House aides belatedly recognized the problem and tried to make
improvements in the plan. The president’s education adviser, Austin
lawyer-lobbyist Sandy Kress, has been trying to persuade the House and
Senate conferees to adopt a new system for judging schools’ performance. He
has sought to find a way of targeting for reform only “truly failing” schools—”F”
schools, he calls them, the bottom 10 percent or so in each state. He’s been
hounded to do so by governors, state legislators, and lobbyists representing
school boards and local educators, none of whom want to face the political
consequences of having vast numbers of schools in their jurisdictions labeled
failures.

But jettisoning the tough but fatally flawed standards for judging school
performance has been a lot harder than Kress expected—thanks to the
influential congressional Democrats and left-leaning education organizations who
have come around to thinking that testing is a way to force educators to focus
on disadvantaged and minority students.

California liberal Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on education, has led
the charge in the House, while two more centrist Democratic senators, Joe
Lieberman of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana, have been the leaders on
the other side of Capitol Hill. Miller often talks of the time he’s spent guest
teaching in a “continuation” high school for troubled students in his district,
where, he says, teachers view their students as “acceptable losses” and don’t
even try to educate them. During the presidential campaign, Bush memorably
labeled such treatment “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

No one outside of Congress has pushed Miller’s
high-standards-for-disadvantaged-students doctrine more strongly than Amy
Wilkins, a former Democratic political organizer who now lobbies for the
Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit organization founded by a former
executive of the Children’s Defense Fund, where Wilkins herself worked in the
early 1990s. The grandniece of Roy Wilkins, the legendary civil rights leader and
NAACP executive, Wilkins is a master of legislative detail, a first-rate debater, a
favorite of the Washington press corps and possibly the most influential
education lobbyist in the capital.

She has defended the most demandingcongressional system of judging schools
aggressively. Shortly after an aide to Sen. Jim Jeffords first revealed last April
the dangers of the “annual yearly progress” requirements in the House and
Senate testing bills, Wilkins and Lieberman’s staff started working the
Washington media, charging that a new Senate formula for judging schools that
Kress had drafted in response to the problem represented a White House retreat
on standards for poor and minority kids.

Wilkins was throwing Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” sound bite right
back in his face. The media dutifully responded with a spate of Bush-sells-out
stories, which got things only half right.

It is true, as Wilkins pointed out, that Michigan’s Gov. John Engler,
then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and other influential GOP state
executivespressured Kress to scrap the House system and an early Senate
system for judging schools. It’s also true that the replacement school-evaluation
method Kress wrote into the Senate testing plan could allow states to hide the
performances of underachieving subgroups by requiring that their scores be
combined into a single, school-wide score. But that didn’t change the basic truth
that Wilkins and her congressional allies were overlooking the fundamental
defects in the House and Senate systems for judging schools.

They now do acknowledge some of those defects. They say, for example, that
schools should be judged on three years’ worth of scores rather than only one.
But they aren’t backing down much farther than that. In the end, whether or not
the Bush accountability plan accurately identifies good and bad schools is a bit
beside the point to them. “What’s the better alternative,” a senior Lieberman aide
asked me, “having a system that over-identifies schools or the status quo? To
us, it’s a no-brainer.” And Miller’s top education aide added: “If we waited for
statisticians and psychometricians to get it right we’d never get anything done.”

Both arguments are compelling but shortsighted: A flawed and unfair system of
measuring school quality would be discredited and no doubt successfully
attacked in the courts. It would play, in other words, directly into the hands of
anti-testing, anti-accountability advocates.

What we need is a defensible system of judging schools—one that requires, for
example, that test scores be averaged over numerous years, that provides a
strategy for giving schools credit for making academic progress even if their
students don’t achieve state standards, and that includes other, non-testing
measures of schools’ success. The House and Senate testing bills should be
stripped of the powerful incentives they give states to introducesimplistic tests
and hollow standards—particularly a provision that lets states set passing
grades on the new tests as low as they want, thereby rendering the tests all but
meaningless. Ultimately, low-income and minority students would be best
served by a system of high-quality national tests in reading and math.

Author

The squabble over standards has produced a rich irony: a conservative
Republican president trying to persuade Democrats and liberal lobbyists to
throttle back their enthusiasm for one of his biggest legislative priorities. “Some
of my allies in reform want to require dramatically improved
performance—immediately, everywhere,” Bush said almost pleadingly in an
August speech to the Urban League. “I appreciate aiming high, but setting
impossible expectations means setting no expectations.”

Still, a schools initiative is central to Bush’s “compassionate conservative”
agenda. His aides have been pressing for Congress to pass something before it
goes home in December, and the president is likely to sign whatever the
legislature approves. That would be a mistake. Both the White House and the
Wilkins-Miller alliance should step back from the existing legislation, forget
about that Rose Garden photo op, and, in the next session of Congress, set
about drafting an accountability system that truly helps poor and minority kids.

Thomas Toch is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

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