Originally published in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), January 2, 2002, p. A7.
“No Child Left Untested”

E. Wayne Ross and Sandra Mathison

In a bipartisan effort, Congress has given final approval to the most sweeping federal reforms of education since Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. The bill, largely written by the White House, dramatically revamps the federal role in education. 

Both Democrats and Republicans have hailed the bill, which is largely modeled after Texas standards for testing student achievement. President Bush claims "these historic reforms will improve our public schools by creating an environment in which every child can learn through real accountability, unprecedented flexibility for states and school districts, greater local control, more options for parents and more funding for what works.” These reforms, however, are a massive intrusion of the federal government on local schools and states’ control of education. The “No Child Left Behind Act” mandates statewide testing in reading and mathematics each year in grades 3-8 and specifies state intervention in any school where children’s tests scores are not annually increasing.

While this bill does provide increased flexibility in the way states spend federal education dollars, most of the money is tied to mandated testing and in practice will undermine local control of education by linking federal funding with improvements in test scores.

This bill might be labeled “No Child Left Untested.” The continued bipartisan promotion of testing as the solution to problems in education is no more justifiable now than it has been in the past. Rewarding and punishing by test results was discredited in the late 1800s.Current uses of high-stakes state mandated tests, in all but Iowa, violate professional standards for test development and use.

For example, high stakes testing programs (those with serious consequences for students, teachers, schools, districts) use a fallible single standard and measure of student achievement, a practice specifically condemned by the professional code of test developers, test publishers, and educational researchers.Also, states have been and now will be more compelled to prepare and use tests without adequate time and attention to proper and justifiable test development.More bad practices will be heaped on already wide spread bad practices in evaluating student achievement and schools.

The research over the past two decades indicates test based educational reforms do not lead to better educational policies and practices.Indeed, such testing often leads to educationally unjust consequences and unsound practices.These include increased drop out rates, teacher and administrator de-professionalization, loss of curricular integrity, increased cultural insensitivity, and disproportionate allocation of educational resources into testing programs, and not into hiring qualified teachers and providing enriching sound educational programs.

The winners, with the passage of this bill, are advocates of standardized teaching and learning, and the few large corporations that sell tests and test based curricula.Not children.

While the challenges of contemporary schooling are serious, the simplistic application of tests to make decisions about children, teachers, and schools impede student learning.Comparisons of schools and students based on test scores promotes teaching to the test and undoubtedly cause some teachers and principals to cheat, understandably, in order to make their schools look good on the tests.Punitively oriented testing programs do not improve the quality of schools; diminish disparities in academic achievement along gender, race or class lines; or move the country forward in moral, social or economic terms.We are staunch supporters of accountability, but not test driven accountability that draws teachers and children into a corruption of education.

The most serious problem with testing based educational reform is its singularity of voice, its insistence that education be evaluated and improved in a single way.The practice of high stakes testing in America is an effort to treat teaching and learning in a simple and fair manner, but in a world where education is hugely complex with inequitable distribution of opportunity.

Increased standardization of education begs challenges from multiple viewpoints as to the costs and benefits for the children in our schools.Education does require decisions as to how children, teachers, and schools will be sustained and improved, but test based reforms, especially those mandated at a great distance from local schools and that promote the special interests of big government and corporations, will not do the job. 

Author Note:E. Wayne Ross and Sandra Mathison are professors of education at the University of Louisville.

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