Bush looks to expand school tests

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The impact of the No Child Left Behind Act -- felt mostly in elementary education right now -- may soon spread to high schools across the nation.

Under a new plan unveiled by President Bush Wednesday, the federal law would require all students in grades three through 11 to take reading and math tests annually and 12th-graders to take tests in both subjects every two years.

The proposal expands on the act's current requirements, which call for all students in grades three through eight to take the test annually and just one year of testing during grades 10 through 12.

Officials at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education declined to comment Wednesday, stating that the proposal was too new to discuss its impact.

Local school district administrators said Bush's plan will be difficult to implement because of the different directions students take after high school. The current proposal calls for using the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is currently administered every two years to students in fourth and eighth grades.

"It's a nationally normed test. If there's anything positive, that would be it," said Rick McClard, principal at Jackson High School. "But I don't know that it will solve the problems they hope it will. A test is not a solution for anything."

McClard said there is a great variance in the subject matter students need to know depending on their post-secondary plans.

"I don't know if there's a single test out there for that," he said. "I'm not sure a test can signify how well a student is going to do after high school."

The purpose of the additional testing at the 12th grade level, federal officials said, is to help policy-makers evaluate their school standards.

But local educators say they're already inundated with data that does just that. Dr. Mike Cowan, principal at Central High School in Cape Girardeau, said he had not yet seen the proposal but that schools in Missouri already receive an abundance of data from the Missouri Assessment Program state tests and the ACT.

"I have to question the value of data on top of data," Cowan said. "I don't know how much more data we need."

Improving high schools has suddenly become a talked-about topic, with calls of alarm from the president, the nation's governors, employers and college professors. The reason: Many high school students aren't ready for college or work after they graduate, if they get that far.

"The attention is welcome," said Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, an advocate for poor and minority children. "Other countries are cleaning our clocks at the secondary level, and we need to get serious about it."

Bush delivered his message at J.E.B. Stuart High, a school in the Washington, D.C., suburbs known for big gains in achievement despite high poverty, student mobility and language diversity.

"Testing in high schools will make sure that our children are employable for the jobs of the 21st century," Bush said at the school. "Testing will allow teachers to improve their classes. Testing will enable schools to track. Testing will make sure that the diploma is not merely a sign of endurance, but the mark of a young person ready to succeed."

Bush said his high school plan, a mix of consolidated programs and new money, would cost $1.5 billion. It may be squeezed fast, with a record deficit limiting domestic spending.

Congress, for example, took Bush's $100 million request for his "Striving Readers" program and cut it to $25 million this year. Bush now wants $200 million for the program.

"Many of these ideas are the right thing to do, and they're the right issues -- we're probably late getting to them," said Patricia Sullivan, director of the independent Center on Education Policy. "But if we're going down this path, we have to have the resources."

Bush won bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind, the law that reshaped education by demanding schools help children regardless of race, wealth or background. Democrats say Bush hasn't provided enough money for the law, making them wary to join him this time round.

Federal spending on programs covered under No Child Left Behind has increased 40 percent since Bush took office, from $17.38 billion to $24.35 billion. But spending went up only 1.7 percent this year, about the same rate of increase the entire Education Department received.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, ext. 128

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