ESEA: What Should Activists Do?

K-12 Testing
The misnamed “Leave No Child Behind Act” will almost certainly cause grave damage to high quality education and inhibit efforts to improve schools that most need help. In states with intense high-stakes testing systems, the situation will not be much worse, but will not improve. In other states, the quality of assessments is likely to decrease while the quantity and the stakes rise. 

Those who care about education and in particular ensuring good schools for those children the bill terms “disadvantaged” must continue the struggle. There are a few things that advocates can focus on:

  1. The new law does not last forever. It expires in 2007, shortly after the test-every-grade provision kicks in and just as the more severe sanctions first hit schools. It also can be amended along the way. Thus, while much of the bill is a setback, it is not the end of the story. Advocates need to maintain and build local, state and national networks to reform testing, even if it takes a number of years to gain the power to implement worthwhile reforms.
  2. Advocates need to expose the social as well as educational consequences of this Act. The lack of funding and reduction of schooling to test prep that will most affect low-income children means that many students will receive a minimally functional education. This will ensure the reproduction of inequality. The struggle for adequate funding for all schools and for social supports for children must continue.
  3. The law imposes no new high stakes for students, though it does for schools. Advocates will have to battle to ensure that states do not use the testing and accountability provisions as an excuse to mandate grade retention and graduation exams, while working to roll back high stakes that now exist.
  4. States can choose classroom-based assessments, not standardized tests, to comply with the federal requirements. Advocates need to push for states to use and support authentic, local, classroom-based assessments.
  5. Test quality needs to be exposed. Advocates should demand that tests be published, then use the items to show how teaching to them will not lead to high-quality education
  6. States are supposed to use graduation rates as an accountability measure, but the Act establishes no mechanism for doing so. Unfortunately, some schools and districts have driven students out in order to boost test scores. High-stakes tests themselves increase dropout rates. Grade retention also often follows testing, and in turn drives up the dropout rate. Advocates therefore need to pay close attention to graduation, grade retention and expulsion rates, and insist that schools, districts and the state work to improve all these factors.
  7. The accountability sanctions include a fairly wide range of options. Advocates should ensure that when sanctions are employed, the least destructive ones are chosen or, if possible, used toward better ends.
  8. Substantial though insufficient funds will be provided for teacher and principal professional development. Advocates need to inform themselves of the many approved options and battle for ones that can actually have a positive impact, including those that prepare teachers to do classroom-based assessment and to work together to use the results to improve schools.