Issue To Watch: School Testing
By Ben Wieder, Staff Writer
While the majority of states have won exemptions from many of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind act, it doesn’t mean that standardized testing associated with the law is going away anytime soon. To get waivers from the federal law and to bolster their candidacy for the competitive Race to the Top grants, states had to submit their own plans to track the performance of their schools and evaluate teachers and principals using student performance, among other factors.
No Child Left Behind is closely linked to former President George W. Bush, but his brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who championed reading requirements a decade ago, has been the inspiration for the latest wave of testing.
Governors in Kansas, Mississippi, New Mexico and Nevada are looking to join more than a dozen other states that have passed laws requiring students to demonstrate that they can read at third-grade level before entering fourth grade. While there isn’t much disagreement on the value of achieving that goal, there is less consensus on whether the benefits of holding students back to improve their reading outweighs the stigma of forcing them to repeat a grade. This year marks the third straight year that New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez will ask the legislature to limit promoting students not reading at grade level. Last year, the state’s House and Senate passed different versions of a third-grade reading bill, but couldn’t iron out differences.
While some states are pushing for these reading tests, others are questioning whether there is already too much testing. In California, Tom Torlakson, the state’s top education official, is rolling out new tests in a year to replace some of the state’s standardized tests and move away from traditional multiple-choice testing formats. Meanwhile, in Texas, considered the inspiration for No Child Left Behind, legislators zeroed out the budget line for testing in the House budget “to start the conversation on testing.” That conversation continued this week with pointed questions about testing for the Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency at a state senate hearing.
In a number of states, it’s no longer only students who have to worry about their performance on tests. Virginia Governor Bob McDonell is pushing for legislation to grade schools on an “A” to “F” scale based on student performance, joining more than 10 other states that have passed similar laws in recent years. “I believe we should grade schools just like we grade students tests and papers,” McDonnell said during his recent State of the Commonwealth Address.
But while the concept might sound simple, the reality is sometimes not. In Oklahoma last fall, the state Board of Education delayed releasing school letter grades for weeks after superintendents in several districts questioned how the grades were determined. The grades ultimately came out, but criticism continues.
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Looking for other ways to boost student performance, more than 30 states have made it a factor in measuring teacher performance in the past several years. The next wave for some could be grading the schools that train teachers. A new ranking of education programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality and U.S. News and World Reports, based on the content of courses, will be released in April, and 25 states have signed on to implement recommendations developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers to improve teacher and principal preparation.
Among those recommendations are tracking the success of the teachers produced by different teacher preparation programs, based on the students they teach, and shutting down programs that aren’t successful. In some states, the changes will require new laws and cooperation between higher education and K-12 education officials that isn’t always a given.
That’s less of a hurdle in Idaho, where the State Board of Education oversees both. The board won’t decide until sometime this spring or summer, however, whether to go forward with the plan, which Tom Luna, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, helped craft.