homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
photo of protests, test-taking

On Jan. 8 of this year, when President George W. Bush signed into law the most sweeping education-reform bill since 1965, he greatly expanded the role of the federal government in education, requiring every state to test every student, every year, in the third through eighth grades, in reading and math. "The fundamental principle of this bill," Bush has said, "is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning." States get to set their own academic standards and choose their own tests, but the federal government, so the new law says, will require them to hold schools accountable for the progress of their students.

The No Child Left Behind Act, as it is officially known, received broad bipartisan support in Washington. But around the country, as many states have already begun to put testing and "accountability" measures in place, educators and test experts are raising serious questions. Can standardized achievement tests really measure the quality of a school? How does the intense pressure to raise test scores affect the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom? What are the challenges of setting academic standards in the first place?

In "Testing Our Schools," FRONTLINE and the PBS education series The Merrow Report take up these questions and others. In interviews with educators, policymakers, and testing experts, correspondent John Merrow reports on recent developments in Virginia, California, and Massachusetts, and explores the debate over whether our reliance on standardized tests -- and our faith in test scores -- could do more harm than good for the nation's students and schools.

"Many politicians and corporate leaders believe the profit-and-loss model of American business will work for education," says Merrow. "But are questions on multiple-choice tests an adequate bottom line for education?" In Henrico County, Va., Superintendent of Schools Mark Edwards thinks they are. "High performance organizations set goals and work hard to reach those goals," Edwards tells FRONTLINE. "I think [education] is about goal-setting and really paying careful attention to learning." In the school district where Edwards presides, "pacing charts" are distributed to teachers indicating what should be taught each day. Students are tested regularly, with high stakes for the schools.

Today's business-like approach to education reform has its roots in a 1983 report titled "A Nation at Risk." The report warned that American schools were "drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity" and threatening the country's economic stability. In 1989, then-President George H.W. Bush hosted the first-ever National Education Summit establishing national education goals, but the business community grew impatient with the pace of reform. Working together with the nation's governors, some of the country's top business leaders called a second summit meeting in 1996, a third in 1999, and a fourth in 2001. From these meetings has come a consensus: only high standards and strict accountability can save public education. [See "Are We There Yet?," an overview of the role of business and politics in the national standards movement.]

On the surface, the "business model" appears simple: set objectives, provide resources, measure, and make the results count. The reality is far more complex. When it comes time for measurement, states have a choice to make. They can spend time and money developing a test specifically tied to their standards, or they can buy a cheaper, ready-made standardized test off the shelf. In the mid-1990s, some states didn't think they had the time for developing their own tests, and took the latter course.

In 1995, California was tied with Louisiana for last place in the nation for student reading skills. Stanford University professor Mike Kirst says California politicians believed they were in an education crisis. They could not wait the estimated five years for a test to be developed. "California said, 'We've got to grab a test off the shelf right away and test the kids, even if it doesn't match the content standards,'" Kirst says.

Students at Logan High School near San Francisco tell FRONTLINE that the California state test they were required to take, the Stanford 9 (or SAT-9), asked them questions about subjects they had not yet begun to study. California is changing: a custom-made test the state began developing several years ago, which will measure what California students are actually being taught, is coming on line.

By contrast, Massachusetts tried to get its testing right from the very start. The state first created its curriculum standards and then went about the expensive and time-consuming process of creating its own test, spending $18 million a year writing the MCAS. Last year, committees of teachers pored over questions in each subject, rejecting those that did not reflect actual curriculum. Mostly, it is the students who are held accountable, although low-performing schools can be penalized. Still, errors were found: not by the adults in charge, but by students taking the test. [See a video excerpt about one tenacious student who found a flaw in the MCAS.]

Setting standards -- deciding what should be taught -- turns out to be just as complicated as measuring learning. In Virginia, educators argued for weeks over which names students should be familiar with in history. If Robert E. Lee is important, what about Frederick Douglass? Does Stonewall Jackson make the list? And if he does, should Jefferson Davis? Meanwhile, special interest groups lobbied to include the Armenian genocide and the African kingdom of Mali in the history curriculum.

William Schmidt of Michigan State University has compared education standards in the United States and most industrialized countries and finds that most American states use what he calls "the laundry list" approach. "We have so many standards at each grade level, compared to other countries," Schmidt says. "At eighth grade, [we're] telling teachers to teach 35 topics; other countries are telling their teachers to teach 10 to 15."

The prospect of still more testing disturbs test writer Audrey Qualls of the University of Iowa. "It's an impossible task," she says. "Bush's plan actually allows the district or state to choose or design any assessment of their choice. We do not have the capability [to produce] reliable, good reports in a timely manner. The resources aren't there. To someone committed to testing ... it's a terrifying idea."

Some education professionals, however, say that a fundamental problem with the current movement toward education reform lies with the policymakers who are leading the charge. "Most of these policymakers are dirt-ignorant regarding what these tests should and should not be used for," says James Popham, a former test writer and professor emeritus at UCLA. "We have to create tests that really do reflect how well teachers have been teaching. Those tests will allow, I think, public education to survive. The kinds of tests we're using now are setting up public educators for absolute failure."

We extend our coverage here on the Web, where you'll find an overview of the testing provisions in the Bush education bill and a Web-exclusive interview with Nicholas Lemann, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and a noted expert on education policy, about the politics behind the bill and what the victory means for Bush. We also offer a guide for parents, links to information on standards and testing in all 50 states, and much more. As always, we invite you to share your thoughts on this report and the issues it explores.

. . . . .

"Testing Our Schools" is a FRONTLINE co-production with The Merrow Report. The producer is John D. Tulenko. The correspondent is John Merrow. The senior producers for FRONTLINE are Martin Smith and Sharon Tiller. The executive producer for The Merrow Report is John Merrow. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.

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