Bush Signs His Education Bill. Now What?

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Bush speaks at Hamilton High School in Ohio prior to signing the education bill

President Bush looked like a man who'd finished a marathon when he signed the $26.5 billion education bill into law Tuesday morning: exhausted and proud. And with good reason: after five months of partisan bickering in Congress, the President realized his number one domestic priority amidst a crowd of onlookers at an Ohio public school. "As of this hour, America's schools will be on a new path of reform and a new path of results," Bush said at Hamilton High School, near Cincinnati. "From this day forward, all students will have a better chance to learn, to excel and to live out their dreams."

Politicians have never been shy about overselling their achievements, but in this case the President (and the bill's congressional backers) had reason to gloat: the measure Bush signed Tuesday morning remains remarkably uncorrupted by the parochial interests that often drag down well-intended legislation. 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 new law 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 in 2002.

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 new law 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 education reform, 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.