Emphasis is on annual testing, contrary to federal report recommendation

NEW ORLEANS, La. – On Monday, President Obama claimed he has no plan to reduce federal education funding, while Senate Republicans have advocated for a $5 billion reduction, as part of their proposed across-the-board $61 billion cut. Instead, Obama called Congressional leaders to revise No Child Left Behind and to expand his new education plan, Race to the Top.

Race to the Top differs from No Child Left Behind in that RTTT redefines a “failing” institution, places a stronger focus on persistently low-performing schools, and avoids placing sanctions on schools that fall short of federal standards.

Both reforms stress the importance of annual tests for every child from grades 3 to 8 and use the results to make federal funding decisions.

This unified emphasis, however, goes against the conclusions of a 2009 Department of Education study (with results below). It attributed disparities between states’ reported test scores to “differences in the stringency of their standards.”

Andrew Coulson, Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, believes that rewards for reported improvement incentivize public schools to lower proficiency standards and inflate their test scores.

“[For funding] it doesn’t matter whether those scores reflect real learning or if they’re just the result of lower [proficiency] standards. That’s why [proficiency] standards have been dropped.”

Last month, Mr. Coulson testified before Congress, showing representatives that there had been a decline in student achievement, even as federal spending rose over 350 percent.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch agrees with Coulson. Since federal law lets states decide their own standards, “states have been creative in adjusting the passing mark on their tests to produce the best results.”

For example, the Department of Education report identified Louisiana as having lowered its grade 8 reading standards by a significant margin between 2005 and 2007. And there were no significant increases in the rigor of Louisiana’s standards at either the 4th or 8th grade level for reading or math, even though funding had increased dramatically.

The Department of Education study identified this trend in 15 more states, including Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma and Virginia. Some education advocates and researchers dispute this conclusion, though, and remain in favor of Obama’s testing plan.

Leslie Jacobs, founder of New Orleans-based Educate Now!, claims that Louisiana adopted the LEAP test and proficiency standards of BASIC in 1999, years before No Child Left Behind. Since then, we “have not changed our standards nor the rigor of the tests either easier or harder, since we adopted the [BASIC] standards.”

Coulson does agree with standardized testing to gauge student academic progress and inform parents. “The problem is that public schooling creates the wrong incentives regarding testing.”

Robert Ross is a researcher and social media strategist with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at rross@pelicanpolicy.org, and you can follow him on twitter.