The Bush Education Plan: A Test of Will

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John Boehner congratulates George Miller after passage of the education bill

The morning after the education reform bill finally made it out of conference committee after five months of often bitter negotiations, three of the bill's original architects, Democratic senators Mary Landrieu, Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, took a few minutes to gloat. Over danishes and coffee they called the bill "revolutionary," "a quantum leap" and "the real thing." Later in the day, President Bush pronounced the reforms "historic" and Ohio Republican John Boehner, who ushered the bill through the House, proclaimed, "These landmark reforms will bring purpose to a federal law that has lost its focus and never met its promise."

Politicians have never been shy to oversell their achievements, but in this case they had a point: the final education bill, which is likely to be signed into law next week, is remarkably uncorrupted by the parochial interests that often drag down well-intended legislation. And "revolution" may indeed be the right word. There is little doubt that the new law will force thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of teachers to change what they do. But will such changes actually help more children learn? The answer depends largely on what happens next.

The heart of the bill is Bush's testing and accountability regime, which will force the 35 states that don't currently test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 to do so, and will sanction schools whose students repeatedly fail to improve their scores. Schools will respond by re-designing their curricula to prepare for these tests. The key to the success of the "revolution" is how they go about doing so.

Will failing schools, in search of a quick fix, rely on outside test-prep companies or repetitive drilling sessions? Will they de-emphasize (or even eliminate) subjects that aren't tested like history and art? Or will the tests inspire genuine institutional change? The answers depend in large part on two factors that are not covered by the legislation: the quality of the tests themselves and what, precisely, it means for a student to pass.

Good tests — ones that probe true learning and not last-minute cramming — are expensive. Michigan, Maryland and a few other states are using such well-regarded tests now, but these can cost upwards of $25 a pupil. Full implementation of the Bush plan, with high-quality tests in all 50 states, could cost up to $7 billion. The current legislation earmarks $370 million for this purpose next year.

And unlike some earlier versions, the compromise bill does not punish states if their tests do not meet national standards, so states have little incentive to foot any of the bill on their own. Says Andrew Rotherham, whose policy paper for the Progressive Policy Institute provided the basis for much of the bill, "It's crucial for states to do testing the right way, but it's up to Congress and the Bush administration to pay for it."

The bill also gives states the crucial task of defining "proficiency": what score do students need to pass the tests? If the bar is set too low, the legislation will be meaningless. But there's also a risk in demanding too much. Warns Dan Koretz, a Harvard education professor who specializes in high-stakes assessments: "If the bar is set too high, it becomes impossible to meet by legitimate ends. There will be enormous pressure to take short cuts. You'll see a dangerous over-emphasis on test preparation and cheating."

Koretz also points out that states with high-stakes tests often tout huge improvement in scores that in truth are illusory — more often the product of test-specific preparation than genuine learning. Regarding the massive expansion of testing mandated by the education bill, Koretz says, "The evidence to date suggests this is not going to work as advertised."

The politicians who worked so hard to pass this bill argue otherwise. But if they truly are serious about revolutionizing public education in America, they must realize that the real work — figuring how to use testing as a successful educational catalyst — is just beginning.