Let Them Eat Tests: Bush Bill Opens a New Era in Federal Education Policy

Article excerpt

[The following article was first published in the Summer 2002 issue of Rethinking Schools, an urban education journal. Subscriptions are: four issues/1 yr., $15; 2 yrs., $25. Rethinking Schools, 1001 E. Keefe Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53212, 1-800-669-4192, www.rethinkingschools.org]

Stock up on number 2 pencils. That may be the only sure advice to follow in the wake of new federal education legislation signed by President Bush earlier this year. More standardized tests are on the way, and they carry "high stakes"--and high hurdles--with them.

Perhaps even more significant is how the legislation could reshape the federal government's historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education in the service of a conservative agenda that comes wrapped in rhetorical concern for the poor and people of color, but which may ultimately hurt poor schools most.

Essentially, the legislation codifies at the national level policies that have already wreaked havoc at the state level: punitive high stakes testing, the use of bureaucratic monitoring as the engine of school reform, and "accountability" schemes that set up schools to fail and then use that failure to justify disinvestment and privatization. It's George W. Bush's dubious "Texas miracle" gone national. (For a detailed discussion of Bush's Texas education record, see Rethinking Schools Fall 2001 and Summer 2000.)

MANDATED TESTS

Federally mandated annual testing is the cornerstone of the comprehensive, bipartisan bill that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a consolidation of the major K-12 federal education programs including the Title I program that reaches 47,000 high-poverty schools. The tests are central to a greatly expanded and revised role for the federal government in local schools and districts.

The bill's far-reaching implications are just now coming into focus, despite the high-profile attention Bush gave to education issues during his campaign. The euphemistically named "No Child Left Behind Act" passed with overwhelming Republican and Democratic support, 381-41 in the House, 87-10 in the Senate. Two Senators, Kennedy (D-MA) and Gregg (R-NH) and two Representatives, Boehner (R-OH) and Miller (D-CA) were largely responsible for crafting the legislation, bypassing in significant ways some of the usual advocacy input, deal-malting and compromise that normally raise alarms about dramatic shifts in federal policy.

Among the major features in the law, which runs over 1,000 pages:

* Mandated annual tests in reading and math from grades 3-8 and at least once in grades 10-12.

* Additional annual tests in science beginning in 2007, given once between grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12.

* Use of these tests to determine whether schools are making "adequate yearly progress" towards 100 percent proficiency for all students within 12 years (2013- 2014).

* Sanctions for schools receiving federal

Title I funds that don't reach their "adequate yearly progress" goals, which most likely will be impossible to meet (see below). The sanctions include now-familiar "corrective measures" like outside intervention by consultants, replacement of staff, or state takeover. Additional sanctions reflect the administration's privatization agenda that lurks just below the surface of the legislation. This includes use of federal funds to provide "supplemental services" to students from outside agencies, imposing school choice or charter plans, or transferring management of schools to private contractors. Tenure reform, merit pay, and teacher testing are also potentially in the mix, though they are not mandated by the new law.

What's significant about these policies is not so much their content--they are neither new nor promising as school improvement strategies--but their federal endorsement and political packaging. This rightward turn in federal education policy comes dressed in Bush's trademark "compassionate conservatism. …

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