Testing, testing

In the last of our letters from abroad, Paul Johnson worries that public education in the US is in for a testing time trying to secure funding from the federal government.  

In the foreword to the No Child Left Behind Act 2002 – the reauthorisation and restructuring of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965 – President Bush stated: “Bipartisan education reform will be the cornerstone of my administration.” He also went onto assert in 2003 that he had a “deep passion to make sure every child gets educated in America.” These statements sound wonderful, but what subsequently occurred was a disappointment.

No Child Left Behind brought the federal government into local public school policy-making to an unprecedented extent. The programme saw the Bush administration demanding that if schools were to receive federal money, they were expected to show results. In other words, what was really occurring was “testing”.

The president’s plan required each state to test its students in reading and maths annually in grades three through eight (nine to 14 year olds). Each school district was then expected to compile scores for each school. Schools were then required to release “report cards” on students’ performance and were expected to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress.”

If schools failed to make progress in each category for two consecutive years they would be required to use their title one federal funds (money distributed to high poverty schools) to provide supplementary education for any student who desires it. Poorly performing schools were also required to offer any student the option of a transfer to a “better” school.

Social welfare programmes, education programmes and health care programmes cost money. Initially they are expensive, but what you are looking at is the long-term benefits, which ultimately result in a great deal of cost benefit.

Again, No Child Left Behind, was supposed to be different; it was a bill that was going to receive the maximum amount of money allowed at authorisation level. Indeed President Bush asserted at the bill’s signing: “The new role of federal government is to set high standards, provide resources, hold people accountable, and liberate school districts to meet the standards.”

Yet, No Child Left Behind programmes were only appropriated $22bn – some $4bn short of the authorised level; and in 2003 and 2004 Bush even proposed cuts to the programmes.

These cutbacks could not have come at a worse time for state lawmakers, who have been faced with huge budget deficits and new education mandates that do not provide the funding to accomplish its goals. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 17 states cut K-12 funding (which pay for teachers’ salaries and benefits, textbooks and school supplies, and transportation) in 2002; while 20 states were forced to cut their K-12 education budgets in 2003.

Thus, we have ended up with a system of testing where results are tied to material consequences such as funding, graduation and teachers’ pay raises. So, pass the test and you will receive funding; fail the test and your financial support will be ended. This has resulted in a situation where educators are spending more time on test preparation and less time on teaching.

Teachers, parents and students know that testing and learning are not the same. So the question, Mr President, is not that every child can learn, but how to provide them the necessary tools to achieve that. In doing that no child will be left behind.

Paul Johnson is assistant professor at the school of social work, University of Southern Maine.

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