Dangers and Opportunities in Federal Stimulus Law

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, March 2009

While  economic stimulus funds will be a boon to cash-strapped schools across the nation, other provisions offer both danger and opportunity for assessment reform. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) requires states to use new federal funds to "enhance the quality" of their assessments. This could mean development of a national test or mandates for states to make state exams tougher, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called for. Alternatively, it could support a move away from the emphasis on high-stakes, mostly multiple-choice tests, as President Barrack Obama proposed during his campaign.  In addition, the ARRA requirement that states build longitudinal data systems could establish a technological basis for paying teachers for gains in student test scores. The final federal policy will depend on the capacity of assessment reformers to influence the course of events,  through actions such as:

- Working to halt development and implementation of a national test;

- Pushing states to use ARRA funds to overhaul their assessment systems in a positive direction, while also pushing the U.S. education department to support such efforts; and

- Promoting high quality professional development and systemic school reform (as called for by the Forum on Educational Accountability) instead of "merit pay" schemes.


The funds for national test development likely would come out of $5 billion for "incentive grants" and an "innovation fund" in ARRA. Rather than one federal test, however, the Department may fund consortia of states and private groups to construct several different but comparable testing systems. Given the flexibility of the ARRA language, it will be difficult to stop the initial development of such exams if the Department chooses to fund them. The future uses of such assessments, however, could be the focus of a serious battle during No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reauthorization.

National test proposals have surfaced and been defeated several times since the first President Bush proposed one. For example, the Clinton Education Department began work on a national test until Congress blocked that use of federal funds (Examiner,  Oct. 1998).    

FairTest and other assessment reformers have opposed any national test. 
Concerns include problems with test quality, particularly assessment of higher order thinking skills; narrowing curriculum and instruction, while placing control over them in ever more distant bureaucratic or corporate hands; and continuing a "one-size-fits-all" approach that fails to meet many students' needs. The emphasis on testing also distracts from more profound educational issues, such as adequate resources for low-income children, as well as improving the capacity of teachers and schools to deliver better educational quality.

The conservative Fordham Foundation has long promoted national testing. Recently the American Federation of Teachers and the National Association of Secondary School Principals endorsed the concept. Other organizations oppose federally-mandated exams, but not necessarily one(s) created by consortia of states and private entities such as Achieve. The Gates Foundation already plans to develop an exam it would make available free to states.

Secretary Duncan has called for new assessments to be "benchmarked to international standards." This means they would be more difficult than almost all current state exams, even though studies show that 80% to 100% of schools in most states already will fail to make the "adequate yearly progress" mandated by NCLB.  Duncan has not said what he thinks of the controversial NCLB requirement that all students reach the proficient level on state tests by 2014.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan also support rewards for "high-performing" teachers. Obama carefully avoided saying that the criteria for such rewards must include student test scores. However, ARRA funding requirements say states must fulfill the "America COMPETES" act proviso that each create a system to match individual teachers to specific students. This could become the basis for pay for student scores, which would further escalate teaching to the test. Although this approach has been a dismal failure in Britain and the U.S., it has strong supporters among some key Obama policy advisors as well as the Gates and Broad Foundations and many Republicans in Congress. However, teacher union and opponents mobilized many Democrats against the idea in the last Congress.


Funding to improve teacher effectiveness, another permitted use of ARRA funds, could be used to engage in the systemic school reforms proposed by the Forum on Educational Accountability, chaired by FairTest. FEA supports collaborative professional development practices, including mentoring. One focus could be developing and using local assessments. Again, Secretary Duncan has given no indication of his views on such efforts.

These looming battles precede and foreshadow debates over the reauthorization of NCLB. The Senate and House education committees have indicated they hope to have a bill ready by the end of this year, to be acted on in 2010. Many outsiders believe that is too optimistic.

The best way to overhaul NCLB is to ensure that school-, child- and learning-friendly ideas, such as those promoted by FEA, are in education committee drafts of a new law, replacing its current test-and-punish approach.

- A debate on national standards and tests between Fordham Foundation’s Checker Finn (pro) and FairTest Board Member Deborah Meier (con) is at http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/E_Pluribus_Unum.html.

- The Joint Statement, now signed by 149 national education, civil rights, religious, disability, and civic organizations, is available at http://www.fairtest.org/node/30.

- The Forum on Educational Accountability's ideas for a new federal law are at www.edaccountability.org.

- President Obama's March 10 education policy speech is at http://thepage.time.com/president-obamas-remarks-on-education-reform/