Policy Perspective No. 1021
March 2002

All children tested, but many left behind

By Nick Weller


In January 2002 the U.S. House and Senate reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), optimistically called the No Child Left Behind Act, which directs much of the federal government's involvement in K-12 education. President Bush claimed, "[T] hese historic reforms will improve our public schools by creating an environment where every child can learn." Achieving this goal would be a historic feat. In the last 35 years the ESEA has failed to provide a quality education for all students despite directing more than $130 billion towards that goal.

The centerpiece of the ESEA is mandatory state testing, combined with provisions to pressure failing schools to improve. The new testing requirements may negatively affect curriculum and disguise school failure by setting the standard for proficiency so low as to be meaningless.

The bill does take the important step of recognizing that students should not be forced to attend continually failing schools. Some new options will be at the disposal of parents whose children attend such schools, however, the bill fails to provide real education freedom to most parents. Schools will be held to new performance standards, but educators are not given any new flexibility to meet those standards. Further, the increasing role of the federal government in education should make parents, educators and local politicians wary.

What is included in the ESEA?

The ESEA is a mammoth document that totals over 1,000 pages and contains many obscure, specific rules the effects of which will only become clear over time. The centerpiece provision of the bill, mandatory state testing, is complemented by a slew of other provisions that: give military recruiters access to students; authorize school districts to use federal money to test for illegal drug use and to inspect students' lockers for weapons, illegal drugs, or drug paraphernalia; expand federal support for charter schools; and increase federal funding for reading programs. The complexity and length of the bill makes it nearly impossible to understand its full ramifications.

Testing requirements

For the first time the federal government will require annual math and reading tests in grades three through eight; states can choose to develop and/or purchase appropriate tests. Because Oregon already tests reading and math in grades three, five and eight, the state will only need to add exams in grades four, six and seven. Schools must define and track Adequate Yearly Progress towards having 100 percent of students achieve proficiency in math and reading within the next 12 years. To help the U.S. Department of Education verify statewide assessments a small sample of students in each state will participate in the fourth- and eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and math every other year.

What kinds of tests should Oregon adopt?

The ESEA is open-ended about the types of tests states can use, as long as they are linked to grade level performance standards. For example, a state may develop tests for grades three through six but purchase tests for grades seven and eight from private test providers.

Oregon's education policymakers should use this opportunity to ensure that the new tests meet at least three objectives: minimal use of state resources, and comparability between grade levels and with other states. The Oregon Department of Education has been through test development before with the Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM) benchmark tests and understands the difficulty and expense in creating exams. Considering current and future budget constraints and the continuing focus on implementation of the Certificate of Advanced Mastery, the state should look for an outside test supplier rather than add more demands on the department. In fact, simply postponing the CAM adoption would allow the state to focus on implementing the ESEA, and give the state an opportunity to evaluate state-level reforms in the context of the new federal requirements.

The new tests should be comparable between the grade levels for which they are adopted so that students' performance can be monitored as they move through the school system. Current test results suggest that as students advance in grade level, fewer pass the state standards, which is evidence of a slip in relative grade-level performance. This issue is not addressed in the ESEA, but the new grade-level exams offer an opportunity to gain more information about this trend. Additionally, tests should allow comparisons to other states so Oregon can determine how effective its policies are and evaluate promising approaches from other locales.

Testing affects on education

Critics of testing argue that American students are overtested and need fewer standardized tests, not more. After all, simply weighing a child does not make him grow. On the other hand, testing proponents argue that standardized exams create clear expectations for schools and students as well as collect precise information about performance. The biggest education effects come not from the tests themselves, but from the changes that the exams precipitate.

One clear effect of testing is that teachers have less time for their lesson plans. Eight years after the passage of the Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century, which ushered in the state benchmark tests, Willamette Week reported, "Fifth-grade teachers at Irvington Elementary calculated that if they did all the preparation, testing and assessment suggested by the education department, they'd spend a third of the school year on testing and work samples-60 class days in all." Too much testing forces teachers to spend more time on bureaucratic paper shuffling than on efforts to improve classroom instruction.

An explicit type of preparation is what critics call "teaching to the test." Oregon's current tests lead teachers to spend more time helping students learn test-taking skills. This problem will worsen as federal involvement spreads tests to more grade levels, with greater consequences attached to test results. Teachers may take time to learn new tricks and techniques for boosting test scores rather than gaining greater content knowledge or developing better lesson plans. It is easy to imagine schools taking time away from regular curriculum to offer test preparation instruction, like the Princeton Review and Kaplan, which teach students how to improve test scores without actually increasing academic knowledge.

The fear that a focus on testing can reduce the quality of curriculum is not unwarranted. Oregon's current testing program has already reduced the quality of classroom curriculum. For example, Reynolds' High School English Department Chairman told The Oregonian that the CIM has made it difficult for teachers to enrich the curriculum, saying that instead of reading four books a year, students may now read only two.

Unfortunately, classroom time devoted to the new exams is likely to be a waste. As is already the case with the CIM exams, students are unlikely to take the tests seriously. Commenting on the CIM, one high school student told The Oregonian, "There's a reward to yourself for doing the work, but it doesn't really mean anything." The federally-mandated exams will suffer from this fate, too, because performance on them is unconnected to any rewards or penalties for students.

The effects of proficiency standards on students

The ESEA requires that states define a level of proficiency and bring 100 percent of students to it in both reading and math within 12 years. An objective definition of proficiency does not exist, however, and where the line is placed has major consequences. If standards are moderate to high, for example, schools may define more children as "learning disabled" to exempt them from the national exams, even though it might be more accurate to call the problem a disability of the rigid school system.

The conference committee authoring the ESEA recognized that even in the current system "some children are being diagnosed as needing IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] services simply because they did not receive proper early reading instruction. Over-identification is causing countless children to be placed in special education classes they don't belong in." The federal solution to the problem is the "Reading First" initiative designed to improve reading instruction in the early elementary grades. Improved reading instruction may help some students, but the need to have 100 percent passage on the exams will likely cause even more students to be misidentified as learning disabled, forcing them to shoulder that potentially significant stigma.

The 100 percent passage requirement means states will probably adopt relatively low standards for proficiency. Low standards may in turn reduce schools' ability to help students excel. Curriculum will be adjusted to reflect the lowest common denominator, which will disproportionately affect advanced students who already exceed minimal proficiency standards and need a challenging environment beyond that of basic school curriculum. Although a school is determined successful if all students achieve proficiency, such a standard is inadequate. For example, if a student with an IQ of 150 barely achieves proficiency it serves institutional goals, but neither the student nor the school can truly be considered successful.

Will proficiency standards mask school performance?

With a low proficiency standard the ESEA would provide lip service to accountability while masking poor school performance. Oregon's current school report cards show how meaningless the state's evaluations of school performance can be. According to the state Department of Education more than 99 percent of Oregon schools were rated satisfactory or above in the 2001 school report cards. However, in the average satisfactory school nearly fifty percent of students failed to meet state standards on one or more of the following tests: reading, writing, math multiple-choice and math problem-solving. A recent Manhattan Institute report, prepared for the Washington, D.C.-based Black Alliance for Education Options, showed that Oregon had a four-year high school completion rate of 67 percent, one of the lowest in the country. If these statistics warrant a satisfactory rating, the new proficiency standards will also have to be questioned.

Oregon will likely have three tests with which to judge proficiency: the CIM benchmarks, the new state exams mandated by the ESEA, and the National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams. Results from these exams could show dramatically different levels of proficiency among Oregon students. Both the NAEP and the state benchmark exams are given in eighth grade, making it possible to compare those scores. In 2000 the comparison reveals that on Oregon's benchmark exam 56 percent of 8th graders met or exceeded the state's mathematic standard, while on the national exam, only 32 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level. On the 1998 reading exam, 55 percent of Oregon 8th graders met or exceeded the standard but only 33 percent scored at or above the proficiency standards set by NAEP. What will the state-or the federal government-do when the CIM shows 50 percent passing, the new state tests show 100 percent passing, and the NAEP shows 35 percent passing?

The problem with setting a group definition of success is many individuals are lost in the process. The best way to know if a school is successful is to give families the opportunity to change schools when their children's needs are not met. The results of their behavior will provide the most reliable indication of school quality.

Consequences tied to test results

The ESEA legislation provides immediate assistance for students trapped in chronically failing schools. The 1994 version of the ESEA identified nearly 3,000 underperforming schools across the country, but the data were never released and nothing was done once the schools were identified. The new ESEA is an improvement in that these failing schools will be publicly identified. In 2002-03, students at these schools will receive immediate access to intradistrict public school choice and supplemental private education services.

For all other schools, failure to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for two consecutive years requires the school district to provide intradistrict public school choice. If a school fails to meet AYP for a third year, the district must continue public school choice and additionally offer supplemental services to low-income children.

If a school fails to make AYP for four consecutive years, the district must implement corrective actions, such as replacing staff members and implementing a new curriculum, as well as continue to provide public school choice and supplemental services. If a school is still failing after five consecutive years, it would be subject to alternative governance actions, such as state takeover, the hiring of a private management contractor, conversion to a charter school, or significant staff restructuring.

Public school choice

The public school choice provision requires districts to develop a policy providing parents at failing schools access to open seats at, and transportation to, another district school. Technically, public school choice is already in place in many districts, including Portland and Eugene, but reality falls far short. Even when parents are aware of transfer policies and bureaucratic hurdles are minimized, there is little ability or incentive for successful government schools to accept students from failing schools. If there are no good schools in a district or if the better public schools do not have seats for new students, this provision becomes meaningless. For choice to truly exist, parents must be able to select from a wider range of schools.

Supplemental educational services

The supplemental services provision allows low-income parents to use a portion of a student's Title I proceeds, approximately $500 to $1,000, to pay for additional public, private, or faith-based education services, such as tutoring in reading or math. This provision replaced President Bush's original plan to use Title I funds to provide low-income students with school vouchers, which would have signaled a significant change in the provision of education. In this less ambitious and not as useful compromise, families cannot use the money for private school tuition.

Allowing $500 to $1,000 of Title 1 funds to be spent on private school tuition would not cost taxpayers additional money, but would open more educational opportunities to low-income families and increase outside pressure on the system to improve. Private scholarship programs across the country have shown that even a modest $1,000 can afford low-income parents access to private schooling.

Performance accountability and school autonomy

The corrective actions outlined in the ESEA for schools that fail to meet AYP for four or five years should ideally act as negative incentives to encourage school improvement. Unfortunately, the schools have not been given any commensurate freedom to improve their performance.

Professors Benjamin Scafidi and Catherine Freeman of Georgia State University and Stan DeJarnett of Morgan County (GA) Public Schools write, "Without a significant degree of control over the means for education improvement, such as budgets, personnel, and curriculum, local educators cannot ultimately be held accountable for achieving the assigned end of improving and achieving a high level of student learning." As the authors point out, "If truly held accountable for student learning outcomes, local educators have strong incentives to do whatever it takes to achieve the specified learning goals." Because the federal government has taken this step of emphasizing performance standards, Oregon lawmakers should give educators greater flexibility to exercise their professional judgement. Making participation in CIM and CAM voluntary would go a long way toward that end.

Danger of national involvement in education

The newly reauthorized ESEA represents an increase in federal control over education. This fact should be of concern because millions of students will be affected by any poor policies that are adopted, perhaps for decades to come. Federal programs are incredibly difficult to change even after they are known to be harmful.

Although the ESEA explicitly rejects the notion of a national curriculum, it requires a sample of fourth and eighth graders to participate in the NAEP reading and math tests every other year. The NAEP is to provide an independent benchmark for the progress states are making. Supposedly, the results of the NAEP are not to exert "undue influence" on states to change their standards and/or assessments. What exactly undue influence is will be determined over the years, as will the reaction of federal officials when comparisons between NAEP and state tests reveal, as in Oregon, a 23 or 24 point difference in the percentage of students meeting proficiency standards. The difficulty of developing a proper standard for proficiency will likely cause disagreements between state and federal officials in the coming years. The promises of the federal government notwithstanding, it is reasonable to suspect that many states will align their standards with the now-mandatory NAEP exam to avoid such a large discrepancy in performance, as well as to prepare for the possibility of sanctions and rewards connected to NAEP exams.

If this happens the country's schools will be much closer to a national curriculum, which would be a major setback for education. Some have advocated a national curriculum for years and there have been attempts to define such a curriculum. But as Bruce Goldberg points out in Why Schools Fail, "The trouble with all such views is that their authors are deluded in thinking their plans 'derived from the unvarying facts of the creation.' Every one of these mind-designing schemes, however, when looked at closely has turned out to have little to do with either science or order. What one finds is pure subjectivity offered as science and arbitrariness disguised as order."

Because it is impossible to determine the one best curriculum, it is important that schools be free to adopt the best curriculum available. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell observed in 1973, "Pluralism also affords some opportunity for experimentation, innovation, and a healthy competition for educational excellence. No area of social concern stands to profit more from a multiplicity of viewpoints and from a diversity of approaches than does public education." Oregon has already moved away from this level of local autonomy, and the ESEA will centralize control even more.


The ESEA represents an important step by acknowledging that it is unacceptable for students to continually receive a low-quality education. According to the legislation schools must have all students scoring at or above proficiency within 12 years. Even if that outcome occurs and the level of proficiency is set at a reasonable level, what about the thousands of students who have been failed by the school in the interim period? It is ironic that legislation called No Child Left Behind accepts the fact that many children will continue to receive a poor education for the next 12 years. For these students, if improvement ever happens it will be too little, too late.

The tests and proficiency standards ushered in by the ESEA will not themselves improve education and may have the unintended consequence of reducing the quality of curriculum and masking school performance. Ultimately the best arbiters of school success are parents, and the ESEA's provision for public school choice empowers a limited number of parents with children at failing schools to seek a better school environment. Extending this ability to all parents and including the option of private schooling would give all children the best chance at a quality education. Further, to give public schools the best chance for success local educators should be granted the flexibility to use their professional judgment in meeting the new performance standards.


1.For example, four percent fewer 8th graders passed the state's benchmark reading exams in 2001, than 5th graders in 1998. The same trend appears in almost all comparisons between grade levels in Oregon. A similar pattern has been noted nationwide on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, and is addressed in the following report: Tom Loveless, How well are American students learning? Focus on math achievement, Brookings Institute, Washington D.C., September 2000.

2. For further reading on the role of testing in education refer to: Nick Weller, The false promise of accountability testing, Cascade Commentary No. 2001-21, June 2001.

3. Nigel Jaquiss, "Who still thinks Oregon's school reform is working?" Willamette Week, May 5, 1999.

4. Steven Carter, "Few seniors reach CIM summit," The Oregonian, January 21, 2002. p. A1.

5. Ibid.

6. "What the H.R. 1 Education Reform Means for Students with disabilities," Talking Points, U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, Dec. 10, 2001.

7. "More Oregon Schools Earn Higher Ratings On State Report Cards," Oregon Department of Education Press Release, January 24, 2002.

8. Jay P. Greene, High School Graduation Rates in the United States, Manhattan Institute, New York, November 2001, http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_baeo.htm.

9. Cascade Policy Institute administers Children's Scholarship Fund - Portland, a privately funded program that provides partial scholarships to low-income parents to send their children to a school of their choice. For more information see: www.cascadepolicy.org/csf.asp or www.scholarshipfund.org

10. Benjamin Scafidi, Catherine Freeman, Stan DeJarnett, "Local flexibility within an accountability system," Education Policy Analysis Archives, Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University, Vol. 9 No. 44, October 25, 2001.

11. Bruce Goldberg, Why Schools Fail, Cato Institute, Washington D.C., 1996, pp. 102-103.

12. San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973).

Nick Weller is education policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute.
Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon's premier policy research center. Cascade's mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity. To that end the Institute publishes policy studies, provides public speakers, organizes community forums and sponsors educational programs. Focusing on state and local issues, Cascade offers practical, innovative solutions for policy makers, the media and concerned citizens.

Cascade Policy Institute is a tax-exempt educational organization as defined under IRS code 501(c)(3). Cascade neither solicits nor accepts government funding, and is supported by individual, foundation, and corporate contributions. Nothing appearing in this document is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of Cascade, or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before any legislative body.

Copyright 2002, Cascade Policy Institute