The Testing Panacea

School reform through saturation testing is a simple and seductive idea. It needs scrutiny.
March 2001
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

In case you're having trouble grasping the intricacies of the Bush education program, here's a simple explanation. The federal government will make the kids of America smarter by requiring states to test the bejabbers out of them. Or else.

The President brought this grand plan with him from Texas, where his ambitious efforts to test the bejabbers out of Texas school kids has led to some real improvements in an impressively short period of time. It has turned a whole cohort of students into virtuoso test takers.

There are those who say that expanding this approach nationwide will amount to a revolution. Ted Sanders, president of the Education Commission of the States, calls the Bush plan a "sea change" in the federal government's approach to education.

I'm not so sure. I think a "sea change" would be to take the $120 billion in education spending that the federal government now sprinkles around the country to no discernible effect (through nearly 40 separate federal agencies, including the Defense Department), block grant it and hand it over to states and localities to spend on things such as teachers' salaries, the rehabilitation of school buildings, the purchase of equipment, smaller classes or incentives for parental involvement.

While the Bush plan does suggest some block granting, what it mostly does is federalize a headlong rush by most of the states into a frenzy of testing. Now the handful of states that weren't already testing everything and everybody in sight--kids, teachers, principals, bus drivers--soon will be.

And any state that shirks its test-giving duty--perhaps because it doesn't see the intrinsic value of the tests--will face a threatened cutoff of federal funds. At the moment, the feds pay for about 7 percent of the nation's school costs, not an inconsequential amount of money.

Most states won't resist, of course, they'll give the tests and keep the money. What they'll find out is that despite Bush's rhetoric about "flexibility," the testing program has the feel of old-style federal prescription to it. All states will be required to test third through eighth graders in reading and math. States can come up with their own tests on these subjects, and the feds will help pay for them, but the tests must be consistent among school districts and over time so that progress can be tracked within and among the districts. Also, scores must be broken down by race, gender, English language proficiency, disability and socio-economic status, and scores must be released publicly based on those breakdowns.

Districts where students don't test well will face serious consequences. They will "come under corrective action." If performance continues to lag, their students can go to another public school if they want--assuming there's a better one within reasonable distance, and that it's willing to take on new students (those may be fairly heroic assumptions). There's also the possibility that the pupils might be able to take their federal money as a voucher and transfer to a private school, although that piece of the Bush plan seems to be in trouble.

There are questions that the program's architects haven't answered. Why no testing before third grade, or after ninth? And what happens when some states gin up easy tests and others concoct harder ones that fewer kids can pass? We don't know. What we do know is where lots of them flunk, the state's educational system will feel the effects.

So far, just about the whole country seems to think the Bush education program is a good thing. Everybody but the teachers unions accepts the idea of the feds mandating educational testing policy (coercively, if not directly) to states and school districts. Nobody seems willing to point out that testing is one of the oldest ideas known to the field; it has been around ever since schools have existed. In fact, a long time ago, in a land far away, teachers used to test kids all the time--on the material being taught in a particular class. It never occurred to them to do anything else.

The truth is that the panacea of endless testing--the idea of testing as a cure for what ails education--is just too seductive to pass up, especially at a time when all the previous panaceas appear to be accomplishing very little in the most troubled and poorly performing districts. Testing is politically difficult to challenge even though a number of states are starting to scale back their overly ambitious and intrusive testing programs (or at least the consequences to students and schools unable to pass).

Whatever its current appeal, however, the Bush plan is no sea change. It is merely the latest in a long series of faddish proposals that have caught the attention of an educational establishment lacking in genuinely promising ideas. If implemented, the plan will be a glorious boon to the producers of No. 2 pencils. Its value to the students and teachers across the country will be minimal--and its side effects are impossible to predict. In the meantime, this brief word to the wise may be in order: A bad idea implemented at the state level can be modified relatively easily. A bad idea implemented at the federal level is a much more tenacious beast.