State school officials generally praised the US Senate for recognizing the importance of education with passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the lions share of Federal K-12 funding. But many remain concerned about details, such as the national testing program and how it will be funded, the definition of a failing school and the implementation of sanctions against states and districts.
"The Federal government pays less than seven percent of the overall education budget. If the tail wants to wag the dog, lets make sure the tail has a lot more financial resources tied to it. Then the states will be interested. But more mandates and calls for accountability without the corresponding resources is not helpful," said Michigan's Superintendent of Education, Thomas D. Watkins, Jr.
The Senate approved the $33 billion education act by a vote of 91-8 earlier this month (6/14). But it will have to be reconciled with a House version this summer. The final conference measure will mark the first significant increase in 35 years of the federal government's role in education.
In order to find out if student performance is improving, the House and Senate bills call for states to develop annual tests in reading and math for grades 3-8. Fifteen states test those subjects and grades now, but the rest do not.
"We will have to develop a test (for some of those grades) and that will take time and money, " said Jack W. McLaughlin, Nevada's Superintendent.
But that isn't all it will take. There are only three testing companies and they are already finding it difficult to meet states' demands for end of grade tests and graduation exams. Over the last decade, states have set standards of learning for each grade that spell out what a student should know before moving on and most states picked benchmark grades, such as 4, 8 and 10, to test student knowledge. The demand on test writers, administrators and graders has been taxing.
"The testing industry is not doing a great job of keeping up with the capacity today, let alone when all the states have to test in grades 3-8. It is like (telling) Ford Motor Company...to increase their capacity of car production by 50 times in one year," said Watkins.
North Carolina, however, is one state that doesn't have a problem with the new testing requirements. The Tar Heels already test 3-8 with an exam that matches classroom teaching.
"(The state exam) also works in conjunction with NAEP (the National Assessment of Education Progress). We construct the (questions) the same way that NAEP does. I know it poses greater problems and causes greater concern in other places, but for North Carolina, it is a good fit," said state school superintendent Mike Ward.
States can volunteer now under current federal guidelines to administer the NAEP in 4th and 8th grades, but the Senate bill would force all 50 states to do it. NAEP results will be compared to state test scores to ensure state exams are rigorous.
Nevada's McLaughlin worries that the questions on the national tests won't match those that are now asked on state exams. He said if the government is going to impose a national test on states, then it should create a national standard for measuring progress that avoids any confusion.
Once the Federal government determines that a state's test is tough enough, the states will be asked to identify failing schools (many states already do this on their own). These schools will be given additional resources and training. But if student performance fails to improve, penalties will follow. It's still unclear, though, how schools and states will be sanctioned.
"In terms of accountability the senate bill is confusing to say the least," said Andrew Rotherham, of the left-leaning Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
"There is still a lot of work to do to make sure that adequate yearly progress is better defined. That is going to be a key issue when they wrestle with this in conference," adds Watkins.
Iowa is particularly concerned with the penalty section of the bill because the state allows local districts to set their own standards.
"The communities are very proud of their schools and we believe they hold their schools accountable," said Iowa Deputy School Superintendent Judy Jeffrey.
Jeffrey worries the test will be used as the sole basis for measuring a students performance. Ninety-five percent of Iowa schools already score above the national average, but that performance is based on a number of assessment tests and other teaching tools used to measure progress.
"We are very worried about any one test measurement to document growth. It is very difficult to be assured that the growth that is documented is really accurate or that it is a true picture of what is happening with those students," she said.
The federally mandated exams could also become a problem for states, such as North Carolina, already experiencing resistance to testing from parents, students and teachers. The state has eliminated some testing programs and streamlined others that education officials believe do not return enough benefits for the time and money involved in administering them.
Still, North Carolina superintendent Ward believes that the increased federal role in testing is appropriate.
"The fact is that we live, learn and compete in a global market. And while North Carolina certainly appreciates broad discretion in the operation of its schools...we do have some shared interest in what the nation's schools deliver," Ward said. "I don't think it is in our best interest long-term as a nation to assume that at least part of the education agenda shouldn't be a shared agenda."
But other state school officials disagree. It's one thing for the federal government to set guidelines, observes Michigan's Watkins, but quite another to dictate how they are carried out.
"Tell the states that they should be in California by the end of the year. But don't tell us how to get there," Watkins said.