Democrats and Republicans alike are claiming the education bill as a victory. The national testing plan–mandating annual tests in grades three through eight, plus one in high school–is a significant departure from the past. As right-wing pundit Chester Finn once observed, liberals have traditionally hated the word “testing” and conservatives have hated the word “national.” But old principles gave way to current political imperatives. Democrats seized on words like “accountability” and Republicans armed themselves with “compassion.”
The bill is not, however, a victory for children in public schools, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Harvard Civil Rights Project has shown that poor and minority children are hurt the most by an excessive reliance on high-stakes testing–in which performance on standardized tests determines promotion to the next grade, graduation or even the survival of the school. High-stakes tests are associated with high dropout rates, an escalating problem among African-American boys. Exams alone don’t motivate struggling students and can even have the opposite effect, according to a Boston College study.
What students need are tests that truly measure how well schools are teaching basic skills, accompanied by constructive responses to weak points–tutoring, after-school programs that go beyond remediation, summer school (when necessary) that does more than rehash the year’s curriculum and, above all, expertly trained, decently paid teachers for all our schools, especially those serving a high concentration of poor students. The education bill emerging from Congress guarantees none of those things. Instead, failing schools receive as little as one year of technical assistance, and students get tutoring and transportation subsidies to attend another school; within five years the failing school could face total “reconstitution,” meaning the staff would be fired.
A critical difference between the House and Senate bills is the method of measuring school success. The House would require schools to break out test scores by race, exposing schools where well-off white students are thriving while minority kids are stuck in the low-performing track (the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that Bush is fond of lamenting); the Senate lets schools average their test scores, masking any racial achievement gap. Bush is under intense pressure from the Republican-dominated National Governors Association–conservative governors fear having to pour resources into schools revealed to be neglecting their minority students–to support the Senate’s version on this point.
Ted Kennedy and the other Senate liberals hailing the education bill as a triumph focus on the dollar signs. They can claim that the Senate bill authorizes $33 billion–including more money for teacher training, improving school buildings and programs for disabled and immigrant children–versus Bush’s $19 billion and the House’s $24 billion. But even the Senate figure falls woefully short, and getting the funds appropriated down the road will entail a messy fight, given the promised tax cuts. That inconvenient fact could spoil the bipartisan fun.