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E.S.E.A. Watch

By Stan Karp

Supporters of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation have made a series of claims about how various aspects of the new law will help kids, parents, and schools, especially in poor communities. This month's ESEA Watch takes a closer look at these claims. (Note: ESEA stands for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a combination of the major federal educational programs. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the political label given by the Bush Administration to the version of the ESEA that was renewed last year. ESEA and NCLB refer to the same set of federal programs and regulations and are often used interchangeably.)

Claim: Annual standardized testing is the key to bringing school improvement and accountability to all schools. "For too long," says the Department of Education, "America's education system has not been accountable for results, and too many children have been locked in underachieving schools and left behind. ... Testing will raise expectations for all students and ensure that no child slips through the cracks."

Reality:A huge increase in federally mandated testing will not provide the services and strategies our schools and students need to improve. Most states and local districts have already dramatically increased the use of standardized tests over the past two decades, without solving the problems of poor schools. Some estimates are that the new federal law will require states to give more than 200 additional tests at a cost of more than $7 billion.

Many studies show that standardized testing does not lead to lasting increases in student achievement and may in fact reduce it. Researchers at Arizona State University recently completed the largest study ever done on the issue. They concluded that "rigorous testing that decides whether students graduate, teachers win bonuses and schools are shuttered, an approach already in place in more than half the nation, does little to improve achievement and may actually worsen academic performance and dropout rates." (New York Times, 12/28/02)

When schools become obsessed with test scores, they narrow the focus of what teachers do in classrooms and limit their ability to serve the broader needs of children and their communities. Over-reliance on testing also diverts attention and resources from more promising school improvement strategies like smaller class size, creative curriculum reform, and collaborative professional development. High-stakes tests push struggling students out of school, and encourage schools to adopt developmentally inappropriate practices for younger children in an effort to "get them ready for the tests." Overuse of testing can also encourage cheating scandals and makes schools and students vulnerable to inaccurate and, at times, corrupt practices by commercial testing firms.

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