Bush Suggests New High-School Tests

 

If elected to a second term, President George W. Bush wants high school students to take even more tests before graduating, an extra demand for states already struggling with extra costs and testing required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Bush campaign materials promise $250 million for states to develop and administer new achievement tests for juniors. And seniors would be required to take the National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams -- biannual tests now required only for the nation's fourth- and eighth-graders and given voluntarily to some seniors.

Because 10th-graders already must take state tests under the No Child Left Behind Act, the proposal would mean that public high schoolers would face three consecutive years of required standardized tests.

The added testing is part of a larger strategy to help more high school students graduate and succeed in college or the workplace. Bush focused attention on his testing proposals for the first time in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week.

"In this time of change, most new jobs are filled by people with at least two years of college, yet only about one in four students gets there," Bush said in his convention speech. "In our high schools, we will fund early intervention programs to help students at risk. We will place a new focus on math and science. As we make progress, we will require a rigorous exam before graduation."

States now are required to give reading and math tests in the third, eighth and 10th grades under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Bush's landmark education initiative signed in 2002. Schools and school districts must improve annually on the statewide tests, and all students must pass the tests by 2014.

"The Bush administration sure believes that testing is the answer to school reform," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, an independent organization that researches and advocates for public education. But Jennings said testing is only part of the answer. "The question is, what do you do with the test results?" he said.

Jennings said a more positive approach is Bush's new proposal to provide $200 million for schools to help 8th-graders plan for academic success in high school.

Adding another high school test would be redundant in a state such as Virginia, which already requires its own Standards of Learning tests through grade 12, said Gov. Mark Warner (D). Warner is leading his own charge for high school reform as chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association by promoting more advanced coursework that would count for college credit and improving the quality of vocational and technical education.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) also are part of a new NGA task force that plans to draft a set of best practices for improving high schools.

Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent of schools in Maryland, said that the high school schedule already is crowded with testing. Seniors would have little or no incentive to take the 12th-grade NAEP tests seriously because there are no individual scores, he said.

High school students increasingly are being pushed to take the Preliminary SAT exam by 10th grade, the SAT or ACT college entrance exams in their junior year, plus exams for rigorous honors' or Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses that may earn college credits. In addition, Maryland and 19 other states require students to pass exit exams to earn a diploma.

Beginning with the graduating class of 2009, Maryland will require students to pass four separate end-of-course exit exams. The state actually is trying to reduce the number of tests by using its 10th grade English exam both as a diploma requirement and to satisfy No Child Left Behind, Peiffer said.

Bush's proposal doesn't go so far as to require exit exams, although states could use the new tests for high school juniors for that purpose, Sandy Kress, a former education advisor to the president, said in a phone interview. Kress said testing is just one component of the president's education agenda, which also includes $200 million to help high school students struggling with reading and $500 million to reward teachers in the most disadvantaged schools and those who succeed in raising student achievement.

But more testing would be an added burden for students and high schools trying to meet the standards required by No Child Left Behind. Under the law, subgroups of minorities, low-income children, students in special education, and those who speak little or no English must pass the yearly testing benchmarks. Schools that miss the rising test targets in any category for two or more years face penalties from allowing students to transfer to higher performing schools to state takeover.

Changes ought to be made to the existing law before more requirements are added, said Utah state Rep. Kory M. Holdaway (R), a high school special education teacher.

Utah, a Republican stronghold, was one of 27 states where Bush's education law sparked a backlash among some Democratic and Republican state lawmakers for intruding on state policies and foisting, according to some estimates, $9.5 billion in extra costs on states this year. 

 
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