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Let Them Eat Tests

By Stan Karp

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-making 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:

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 linked to Bush's trademark "compassionate conservatism." As in Texas, it includes a rhetorical attack on the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and purports to focus attention on the real crisis of school failure in many poor communities. The law targets more federal money to the poorest schools, and mandates dramatic changes in testing and reporting requirements that will focus attention on the racial dimensions of the achievement gap, the learning needs of new English language students and students with special needs, and the widespread use of underqualified and uncertified teachers.

But while the legislation turns up the spotlight, and the heat, on low-performing schools, the remedies it offers have proven ineffective, even harmful. Furthermore, the extra dollars, an additional 18 percent or about $3.5 billion more for ESEA programs, are already threatened by the administration's "war budget" - which calls for eliminating 26 of the federal programs just reauthorized in the new ESEA. The legislation still doesn't provide full funding for Title I, which currently reaches less than half of all eligible low-income students. In fact the gap between the bill's lofty goals and its low-rent resources suggest its proper title would have been, "The Unfunded Federal Mandates Bill."

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