Des Moines, Iowa is a thousand miles from Washington, D.C., but the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) now pending in Congress would have an enormous impact on the midwestern state. A stalwart for local "ownership" of schools, Iowa is the only state that hasn't mandated what students should know by the end of each grade, nor has it forced districts to administer a state-wide test.
But the pending federal legislation would require every state to test students in grades 3 through 8 annually, in reading and math at first but eventually in history and science as well. House and Senate versions of the bill both include complex formulas for assessing results, but in general nearly every school in every state would have to show significant improvement in test scores every year for the next decade.
If test scores don't rise, states will lose some of the money they get from Washington. Critics of the legislation, including the National Association of State Boards of Education and the nation's Des Moines, Iowa is a thousand miles from Washington, D.C., but the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) now pending in Congress would have an enormous impact there. Iowa is the only state that hasn't mandated what students should know by the end of each grade, nor has it forced districts to administer state-wide tests. Critics of the legislation, including the National Association of State Boards of Education and the nation's two biggest teachers' unions, say the bill sets goals that are unrealistic and point to Iowa as an example of how it would trample on state prerogatives.
Iowa Education Director Ted Stilwell hopes that whatever President George W. Bush signs into law will be more flexible than the measures that passed the U.S. Senate and House, and that it will allow Iowa to use an off-the-shelf test that many school districts in the state already use.
"If we are forced to develop (a new) test, then we have a much deeper problem. We will have to spend somewhere between $5 million and $15 million to develop a test we don't need. And there will be an additional annual cost of $2 to $5 million to update it yearly and we will have to grapple with a testing industry that can't deal with the clients they have now," Stilwell says
The federal government provides only about seven percent of the $300 billion that states and localities spend on schools each year, and most of the money is provided through the ESEA. For Iowa, Uncle Sam ponies up about $50 million annually
Mike Bird, a policy expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) agrees that expensive federally-mandated reforms and sanctions will require a cost-benefit analysis. "Once a state asks, what is it going to cost us to participate (in ESEA) and that number approaches what they are getting from the federal government, then they will ask why they should do it," he says.President Bush, who made testing the centerpiece of his education program in the 2000 campaign, wants to force states to fix failing schools by creating a national performance standard with teeth in it.
"Accountability is the linchpin. It will determine whether reforms will be serious or cosmetic " said Andrew Rotherham, Director of the 21st Century Schools Project, a left-leaning think tank that supports Bush's plan.
To hold states accountable for how students perform, both House and Senate versions of the bill establish Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. Critics argue that their one-size-fits all approach would harm reforms already in place in states such as Texas and North Carolina, which have been lauded for improving education and raising test scores. According to a study entitled Assessing the Definition of 'Adequate Yearly Progress' in the House and Senate Bills by UCLA's Thomas Kane and Dartmouth's Douglas Staiger, 98 percent of the schools in the two states would have failed the federal standard set in the bills.
NCSL's Bird said this should send a message to Capitol Hill that designing a system that ensures failure would be the worst thing they could do to public education.
"Not only do you fail but the money is taken from you for having failed. You take a problem and technically make it worse. You are talking about the Federal government all the sudden becoming this bulldog in a system in which they really play a very small role," he said
At least 30 states identify schools whose students fail to meet state standards, 17 states provide teams of experts to failing schools, nine states give more funding, five require more training for staff, and three states make the schools adopt curriculum that has been proven to help students achieve.
Some educational leaders dismiss complaints about the additional demands ESEA would impose, saying they are needed to kick reforms into high gear.
"A number of the leading states have been doing this for some years, but it is time for all states to take this more seriously," said Matt Gandle, Vice President of Achieve, a group of governors and CEOs dedicated to school reform.