A favorite complaint among state officials is that the federal government isn’t adequately funding its No Child Left Behind law, which imposes an annual battery of standardized tests on every school district receiving federal funds. But Doug Christensen, Nebraska's education commissioner, is one of the few who have challenged the actual policy of the testing regimen, which he argues is far too narrow.
Christensen hasn't just complained to the feds — he's gotten them to back down. He brought U.S. Department of Education Secretary Rod Paige to Nebraska, showed him what the schools there are doing and, in May, received a waiver that will allow his state to continue with its mixture of locally crafted student assessment systems. "He has such powerful political structures arrayed against him — the federal government wielding all that money, and a Department of Education that everyone else is bowing to," says Rick Stiggins, president of the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Oregon. "But see, that's his strength. He doesn't care. He's saying this isn’t the right thing to do."
To Christensen's way of thinking, standardized tests are not good measures of how much and how well children are learning. What may be worse, the results don’t come in until after students have moved on to the next grade, offering no chance to improve the classroom situation to help them. As a result of Christensen’s attitude, Nebraska devotes more energy than any other state to helping local districts develop their own ways of measuring student progress and achievement. "Doug has set up a system that focuses on schools improving themselves locally," says Nick Novak, director of evaluation in the Lincoln school district.
Nebraska requires that its districts administer a state standardized writing test in each of three grades. Districts also must choose one of five national standardized tests as part of their assessment portfolios. But beyond that, the state sets benchmarks and lets each of its 535 districts come up with its own way of meeting them, which usually involve lots of classroom exercises. Teachers and superintendents use the results as they go along to adjust and improve the curriculum.
The results are impressive. Nebraska students score well above the national average on federal reading tests, and their performance is even better on college entrance exams such as the ACT, which almost 80 percent of the state's high schoolers take. In fact, by some rankings of such tests, when states are treated like countries, Nebraska rates among the most proficient in the world.
Local control of assessments, however, is the reason Nebraska consistently falls right to the bottom in the annual rankings of testing systems published by Education Week, which measures state-level efforts. That doesn’t bother Christensen one bit. "I’ve never been so pleased to get an F," he says, "because they’re using the wrong criteria."
His meeting with Paige wasn't the first time that the 61-year-old Christensen faced down heavy political pressures to adopt standardized tests. Five years ago, the state legislature mandated uniform testing across Nebraska. But Governor Mike Johanns vetoed funding for the plan and was a key Christensen ally in the effort to get legislators to change their thinking. "Doug kept pushing that that wasn't the way to do it, and he convinced us," says Ron Raikes, chairman of the state legislature's Education Committee.
Nebraska's small districts and homogenous population have undoubtedly made Christensen’s job easier. "I don’t happen to sit in a state that has a large urban school district that's a mess," he admits. But if Nebraska lacks the kind of problem schools that prompted passage of the federal law in the first place, the state refuses to obsess over narrow tests that draw time and resources from schools' central mission of teaching kids how to read, write and do math.
"If the schools systems are doing a great job, why should we be heavy-handed at the state level — let alone the federal level?" says Governor Johanns. "One of Doug’s strengths is that he recognized in really every system in Nebraska there are outstanding teachers and administrators, and he builds upon those strengths."
— Alan Greenblatt
Photos by Rick Neibel