Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2005 | Features

Back to School

By Jennifer Hemmingsen

Maybe you still have nightmares about it. You’re back in elementary school, sitting at your desk. In front of you are the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) booklet and the green-printed answer sheet. All those empty circles. All those chances to be wrong. At your teacher’s cue, you pick up your No. 2 pencil and open the booklet. One by one, you read the questions and mull over the possible answers. Slowly, you color in the bubbles. You fill them in completely, stay inside the lines. Whenever your teacher writes the time remaining on the board, you feel a tiny flutter of panic in the pit of your stomach. What if you don’t get done in time?

Even back in the old days of testing, when our teachers assured us we wouldn’t get in trouble for a bad score, the ITBS was stressful. After Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, it isn’t just students who are getting butterflies during yearly standardized tests. As educators around the country hustle to maximize their students’ scores, finger-pointing predominates. Administrators, parents, students, legislators, test developers—they all have something to say and someone else to blame in a climate of growing criticism for America’s schools. In the center of this complicated standoff lies the question we have grappled unsuccessfully with throughout the 150-year history of public education in America: what should public schools teach, and who are they supposed to teach it to? How can we know if schools are failing if we can’t agree what schools are for?

Public schools started in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century, when northern industrialization was making obsolete the old family-based modes of training and education. Students in these classes read the Bible and learned the three Rs. But those original public schools were rigid, and in some places their anti-Catholic curriculum was extremely controversial. Even today, historians disagree about whether the establishment of public schools was an attempt to realize the Founding Fathers’ vision of equal opportunity, or about controlling the “dirty and different” hordes of immigrants that were crowding the nation’s shores.

Since they started, some schools have been more successful than others. Some students have excelled and others have failed. The No Child Left Behind Act is the latest in a long history of political movements intended to make our schools stronger. Promoters say that the act will cure inequities in our school systems. Detractors say it will destroy public education in America. The reality is likely somewhere in between.

The act has helped bring important problems in our school systems out in the open and renewed discussion about how we’re educating our kids. But experts say the goals may be too lofty, the sanctions too harsh, and the focus on high-stakes standardized tests—the only objective and manageable way to chart progress on such a large scale—might actually cheat students in the long run. Some worry that the act’s emphasis on basic skills will divert school resources away from gifted children, mandating equality at the expense of excellence.  

“The whole key of No Child Left Behind is ‘closing the [achievement] gap,’” says Kris Waltman, 95PhD, associate director of the UI College of Education’s Center for Evaluation and Assessment. “There are two ways to make that gap smaller. One way is to bring the bottom up. The other is to bring the top down.”

The No Child Left Behind Act was passed as a response to persistent gaps in school performance between racial and ethnic groups. The act requires that all public school children perform at their grade level in reading and math by 2014. It requires states to raise the qualifications of new teachers, and to verify the qualifications of existing teachers. In return, the act provides poorer school districts with more money, and gives all states and school districts greater flexibility in how they use federal educational funds.

To make sure schools progress adequately toward their goals, the act sanctions schools that don’t meet yearly benchmarks. Schools that consistently miss these marks risk losing their students, federal money, and, ultimately, control of their institution.

The act worked—at first. In the 2002-03 school year, the largest school systems in the United States—and prime targets for No Child Left Behind—nearly doubled their average rate of improvement in reading and math combined. But a Stanford University study shows that, in 11 of 15 states studied, student achievement test scores leveled off or declined a year later. Researchers in another study found that unless improvement is drastically increased, most schools throughout the nation won’t come even close to the requirement of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

That’s not necessarily the fault of schools, Waltman says. Many of the factors that go into student performance—learning disabilities, English proficiency, and motivation—are out of the school’s control. “Some students are better at some things. Some students struggle with many things. In order to have a test where all students can be proficient, the bar of excellence has to be set very low,” she says.

Under No Child Left Behind, states decide what their students should learn and when, and some have lowered their expectations, apparently in the hopes of staying compliant with the law. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently chastised Utah officials for setting proficiency levels so low in 2003 that  74 percent of white eighth-graders and 47 percent of Hispanics tested “proficient or advanced” in math on the state’s exam, while just 34 percent and seven percent respectively scored at the same level on a national math test.

National attention has focused on other disturbing trends, too. This year, several Hawaii schools were linked to testing irregularities. Last year, Texas officials allowed schools to administer an alternative examination to nine percent of their students, instead of the federally allowed one percent, thereby boosting overall test scores and helping hundreds of Texas schools meet their benchmark.

Waltman is in the middle of a five-year study of changes in instructional practice because of the new accountability rules. She started her study in 2003, gathering baseline data from all Iowa public schools. This year, she collected surveys from teachers and administrators from about 150 schools and will interview instructors during the next school year. Because Iowa is home to Iowa Testing Programs, the company that develops the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development, the state has 70 years of K-12 testing data readily available. Waltman will compare those “low stakes” results with new test scores to analyze the effect of teacher accountability on curriculum and testing practices.

It’s too soon for the researcher to make any conclusions, but Waltman has noticed some positive effects of No Child Left Behind. Across all subject areas, teachers are taking more time to help their high school students learn how to read. Schools are more aggressively identifying areas of weakness in curriculum. Teachers in different grade levels are communicating better to fill in gaps and eliminate redundancies in the subjects they teach.

But, historically, holding teachers accountable for students’ test scores has led to a narrowing of subjects taught. Teachers naturally focus on the areas that will be covered by the test. They give more practice tests. They use similar testing formats for in-class evaluations so the students get used to filling in the bubbles. The problem is that standardized tests can’t measure every skill. They can’t measure some facets of the school curriculum at all, including public speaking, physical skills, health, technology, or arts. So, a teacher will focus on testable items like grammar, and that takes time away from the practical application of rules in composition.

Other states have used the Iowa Tests to evaluate their students for decades. In the last couple years, Iowa Testing has started developing other achievement tests to help states comply with No Child Left Behind. But, some test developers are concerned with the effects it will have on curriculum, because test scores simply can’t provide a description of the whole progress of a school.

And while it makes sense for schools to prioritize and to focus their efforts on those subjects they agree are most important, even within the education field, people disagree about what those priorities should be.

We need children to grow into adults who can read and write, but we also need them to be able to learn new skills. We want schools to establish some values, but not all of one group’s values. Society changes, but societies also need order and stability. How do you boil that all down into a nine-month school year?

“There are lots of expectations for public schools,” says David Bills, a professor in the College of Education’s Social Foundations Program. “What happens is we go too far in one direction, which I think we’re doing now, with the testing and everything, but you lose sight of the other things that are important.”

The question of how to improve our schools is a hot one. Nearly everyone agrees that it’s crucial to educate our children the best we can. “If you look at education either from the point of view of the parent—the deep concern of what’s being done for my child—or if you look at it from the point of view of the country—what are we doing to prepare ourselves for the future—education is really important,” says UI law professor William Buss. “The problem is that there never has been a real consensus—a long- term, across-the-board consensus—on what works.”

So, we keep experimenting, says Buss, a former lecturer on education and assistant to the dean of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We try high standards and uniform standards, more teacher latitude and more accountability, standardized tests and individual learning platforms. “Preferences change over time and the pendulum swings from one side to the other,” he says.

The term meritocracy was coined in 1958, but the idea that people’s success should be limited only by their abilities and inclination to work is much older. For 150 years, our public schools have struggled to implement a system that will foster equality in an unequal world. The real goal of all educational reform is to make sure all American children have the opportunity to learn and grow as much as they can. It’s a test of our commitment to our future, of our vision of where we want to go as a nation. So far, it’s proven to be a bigger test than we can handle.

What are schools for?

"Are schools about teaching obedience and indoctrination into the fundamental beliefs of society, or are they about the abilities to adapt and keep up with the need to get smarter and smarter? I think what we need in order to make schools work, is to find out where the balance is." —UI associate professor of history Allen Steinberg

"To prepare young people for productive lives, for engaged citizenship, and for the possibilities that lie ahead, including the possibility of continuing their education."
—UI Provost Michael Hogan, 67MA, 74PhD

"There are lots of expectations for public schools. Basically, I think we need to be teaching our students cognitive skills, like reading, writing, and math, but they should have some sense of where they fit in the world, and you get that through history, geography, civics. Schools should also produce citizens—people who are socialized to fit into society. Increasingly, what schools are asked to do is to produce workers. That's fine to a point, but what worries me is that, more and more, that's all they're asked to do." —David Bills, professor in the College of Education's Social Foundations Program

"It's good to learn about the past so you can pass it on to other kids. Then no one will forget about what happened a long time ago."—Danielle Hudachek, seventh-grader at Southeast Junior High School in Iowa City

"You learn things and you write. We learn about animals, about wild things. Probably the most important is what you talk about when you're bigger—then you learn about what you want to be." —Elizabeth Fuller, first-grader at Horace Mann Elementary School in Iowa City

"Being able to talk to people and learn how to communicate."
—Brandon Maske, tenth-grader at City High School in Iowa City

"Social skills."—Logan Kutcher, tenth-grader at City High School in Iowa City

School Testing Timeline

UI assistant professor of education E. F. Lindquist starts the Iowa Brain Derby, a statewide scholastic contest designed to identify academically gifted teens. Almost as soon as he had created the program, however, Lindquist decided that it emphasized the wrong issues.
Lindquist developed the Iowa Every Pupil Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), still one of the nation’s premiere assessments to gauge students’ knowledge and their ability to use that knowledge creatively.
Lindquist founds the Measurement Research Center, later to become NCS, and develops the Optical Mark Reader (OMR) to mechanically score tests. Before the machine, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills hired dozens of women to hand score answer sheets each testing season. The machine took one week to score the same number of tests it took 60 women nearly six weeks to complete.
ACT is established by Iowa Testing Programs and Measurement Research Corporation. E.F. Lindquist founded The American College Testing Program with co-founder Ted McCarrel, Dean of Admissions and Registrar at The University of Iowa. He designed the ACT exam to test broad competencies rather than rote memorization. In November, 75,406 high school students took the first ACT Assessment.
Schools begin using standardized tests to comply with the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That statute provided for the first major infusion of federal funds into local schools and required educators to produce test-based evidence that ESEA dollars were well spent.
April 26, 1983. A blue-ribbon commission appointed by the Reagan administration released "A Nation at Risk," declaring a state of educational emergency. Test scores were falling; students were failing to stack up against overseas counterparts. "Our Nation is at risk," the report stated. "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."
February 4, 1993. President Bill Clinton‘s State of the Union Address called for national standards, which would require testing of every fourth grader in reading and every eighth grader in math to make sure the standards are met. This marked a resurgence of the call for national testing.
The 1994 reauthorization of ESEA represented a paradigm shift: No longer would the government ask states and districts to account for how each federal dollar was spent; instead, it would ask for demonstrable results for students of color and students living in poverty. Most school systems continued to perform at a level that was “good enough” on overall averages, allowing schools to hide the underperformance of some groups beneath school averages. Indeed, by the time Congress readied itself to reauthorize the law in 2000, the average reading and math skills of the nation’s African-American and Latino high school seniors were identical to those of white 8th graders.
When GW Bush took office, only 11 states were in compliance with the 1994 ESEA. In less than a year, his administration entered into compliance or timeline agreements with states to ensure that they would be in compliance with a law that had never been enforced.
After 27 hours of discussion, No Child Left Behind is passed, requiring schools to test students in targeted grades for reading and math skills each year. To reveal systemic gaps in learning, reporting requirements are strict. Test results must be broken down for major racial and ethnic groups, major income groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English skills. At least 95 percent of their enrolled students must actually take the test, schools are limited in the number of alternative tests they can administer to students with disabilities or who speak English as a second language. Each group must meet or exceed the annual objectives set for them. If they don’t, schools are subject to progressively more severe sanctions.
2002–03 the largest school systems in the United States—and prime targets for NCLB— nearly doubled their average rate of improvement in reading and math combined. The Council of Great City Schools, which represents large urban school systems, reports major test-score improvements and attributes them to NCLB.
June 10, 2003. 18 months after the law was enacted--all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, had approved accountability plans in place.
October 12, 2004. A Stanford University study shows that in 11 of 15 states studied, student achievement test scores have either leveled off or declined since initial growth under NCLB.
Iowa Testing Programs operates on an annual budget of $3.5 million with 22 permanent employees and six faculty who split their duties with the University of Iowa Department of Education. Chicago-based Riverside Publishing distributes the test outside of Iowa, but UI maintains the copyright.
In March 2005, the Coachella Valley Unified School District board decided to sue the state of California over its implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. The district was one of 14 that were marked as a program improvement school district in 2003-04.
April 13, 2005. A Northwest Evaluation Association researchers study indicates student achievement has improved since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was passed, but student growth has declined slightly. In fact, if change in achievement of the magnitude seen so far continues, it won't bring schools close to the requirement of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
April 17, 2005. The state Department of Education ordered seventh- and eighth-graders at Waianae Intermediate School to retake part of the Hawaii State Assessment following improper coaching of students and the violation of testing security.
April 20, 2005. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teacher union, and several school districts filed suit against Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, saying they can’t be forced to comply with aspects of No Child Left Behind that the feds aren’t paying for.
No Child Left Behind requirements expand to include tests of science skills at certain grade levels.
All public school children should test proficient in reading and math under NCLB.