High Stakes, High Risk

By Monty Neill

As most of us know by now, the No Child Left Behind Act -- the 2001 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- mandates a massive increase in state assessments, which mostly means standardized tests. We also know that the stakes attached to those tests are high. In many cases, the new federal law will seriously disrupt state and local testing programs and cause similar disruptions in schools and classrooms as they try to comply with the regulations.

It would be worth enduring these difficulties if we could be reasonably sure that the test-driven changes would produce improved learning opportunities and outcomes, particularly for the low-income students. Unfortunately, evidence and reason argue they will not. Indeed, the law misdirects the reform process while taking the power to make educationally useful changes away from school board members and other local and state elected officials.

So far, attention has been focused on the requirement that districts provide transfers, with transportation, from schools that failed to post required annual score gains (called "adequate yearly progress" or AYP) to other schools that have made the required gains. Soon, however, many additional schools will face more severe sanctions. Some researchers, including Robert Linn and Eva Baker, conclude that over the next decade the vast majority of schools receiving Title I money will see the most severe penalties: wholesale staff firings, state takeovers, private management takeovers, or transformation into public charter schools.

What is it about adequate yearly progress that makes so many schools, and even whole districts, likely to suffer these draconian penalties? More important, what are the likely consequences for students in those schools -- children who are mostly low income, disproportionately African American or Latino, or have limited English proficiency or disabilities? Finally, what can be done about the harmful consequences that will flow from the federally mandated emphasis on testing? 

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