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Topic: Testing - Full Speed Ahead: PART I:
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Testing - Full Speed Ahead: PART I:
Posted: Aug 30, 2000 2:07 PM
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OF THE PREVIOUS ONE. From Rethinking Schools, Winter, 1999/2000,
Volume 14, Number 2, p. 3.
PART I: National Summit - Testing: Full Speed Ahead
PART II: National Summit - Testing: Full Speed Ahead
PART III: National Summit: What Wasn't Said.
PART IV: The Jobs of Tomorrow

Testing: Full Speed Ahead

Governors and CEOs met at the National Education Summit to press
their system of standards, high-stakes tests, and "rewards and

By Barbara Miner

PALISADES, NY - President Clinton, 24 governors, 33 business leaders,
19 state superintendents and education commissioners, and 35 invited
guests gathered at the National Education Summit at IBM headquarters
in early October to discuss standards and plot the next stage in the
reform of U.S. schools.

In an improvement over previous summits, representatives of education
organizations were invited, ranging from the National Education
Association and American Federation of Teachers to the National
Association of State School Boards. But no principals or teachers
were allowed in, no students participated, and the only
representative of a non-white advocacy organization was Hugh Price of
the National Urban League.

After a day-and-a-half discussion, conference participants dispersed,
by and large convinced that they held the answer to ensuring that all
children will reach high academic levels. Their answer, at its core,
is twofold. First, to have every state adopt standards backed-up by
standardized tests (a process well underway). Second, to set up a
system of "rewards and consequences" for teachers, students, and
schools based on those tests (a process that has only just begun and
was the main conference topic).

Conference leaders were well aware that there is growing discontent
among many teachers, students, and parents about their agenda - in
particular the use of high-stakes tests as the guiding principal of
education reform. (The term high-stakes tests refers to the use of a
single test or battery of tests as the main and sometimes only
determinant of whether a student is retained or is denied a high
school diploma.) One of the clear purposes of the conference was to
send a message that the discontent will not deter the governors and
business leaders.

In a keynote speech riddled with terminology more appropriate for a
wartime general rallying his troops, Louis Gerstner Jr., summit
co-chair and IBM chairman and CEO, told participants that "it's going
to be tough. Institutional change always is. But we have to bear the
pain of the transition. ...We've got to have the guts and political
will to press forward."

President Clinton delivered a similar message. Adopting a framework
of "tough love," he said that accountability policies that flunk
children or deny them a diploma are for the child's own good. The
President told the business and political leaders that they must not
be afraid to tell students, "We'll be hurting you worse if we tell
you you're learning something when you aren't." (Clinton was too
smart to use the term "flunk" but instead used the wildly popular
euphemism "no social promotion.")

It might be tempting to dismiss Gerstner's and Clinton's statements
as political posturing with few consequences in the real world. But
the summit leaders have shown they have the clout to pass legislation
and influence the media in a way that guarantees, at least for now,
that their vision of standards and accountability is the norm.
Further, at a time of highly partisan bickering at the congressional
level, the governors and corporate leaders have forged a bipartisan
agreement that, while sometimes fuzzy in its details, is clear in its
overall thrust. Meanwhile, progressive educators opposed to the
reliance on standardized tests have not yet been able to adequately
articulate an alternative system of accountability that can capture
widespread public support.

"Right now, this [the governors' and business leaders'] view of
standards and testing is the centerpiece of what passes for education
reform," acknowledges Monty Neill, executive director of the national
group FairTest. "People have to address this view very centrally."


The meeting at the IBM headquarters was billed as the third National
Education Summit. The first was in 1989, when President George Bush
convened 49 of the nation's governors and established Goals 2000;
(None of the goals - which ranged from wiping out adult illiteracy to
making U.S. students the world's top achievers in math and science -
are yet within reach.) In 1996, at the second summit, corporate
leaders were brought on board and a more focused agenda was set,
based on standards and accountability.

While calls for standards and accountability pre-date the 1996
summit, the governors and business leaders took the standards
movement and reshaped it in their image. With calls for national
standards stymied by opposition from both the right and the left, and
with district and school-based efforts deemed too prone to influence
from teachers and educators who conservatives had decided were part
of the problem, the governors and corporate leaders forged ahead on
the state level. They set up state standards, often heavily
influenced by conservative ideologues and think tanks. Perhaps most
important, they decided that high-stakes standardized tests were the
best way to determine if schools were reaching the standards. (One of
the most interesting yet untold stories of the history of standards
is how the governors and corporate leaders, aided by conservative
think tanks, took over the standards movement and transformed it into
a top-down process that establishes an official version of knowledge
and sets back efforts to forge a multicultural vision, in the process
valuing discrete facts, memorization, and "basics" over critical
thinking and in-depth understanding. But that is another story.)

Since 1996, the governors and corporate leaders have had an
impressive track record - not so much in guaranteeing true reform and
academic achievement, but in setting up their system of standards and
high-stakes tests. At the time of the 1996 summit, only 14 states had
established state standards in the four core academic subjects. By
the next school year, 49 states will have such standards. (Iowa,
which consistently scores at the top of various national academic
measurements, is the only hold-out, prompting the comment from author
and anti-testing advocate Alfie Kohn, "Thank God for Iowa.")
Furthermore, the number of states that will be requiring students to
pass high-stakes tests in order to be promoted or to graduate has
jumped in the last three years from 17 to 27, and summit leaders are
pushing to increase that number.

The governors and corporate leaders are quick to cite such statistics
as proof of reform. On one level, that's not surprising. Both groups
exist in a world where bottom-line numbers are all that matter: you
either win an election or lose; your profits are either up or down.
It seemed to escape conference leaders that the complexity of school
reform cannot be so easily captured in hard-and-fast numbers. (A
distinction must be made between the conference leaders and sponsors
- the governors and business leaders - and the co-sponsors and
invited guests, which included representatives of educational
organizations. The true power rested with the corporate leaders and
governors. A number of those invited seemed to realize that to not
take part would leave them on the sidelines of what is the main game
in education reform, unable to influence the proceedings and unable
to use the summit's promise of "high standards for all" as a way to
possibly leverage more resources for education and underscore the
importance of teacher training and quality.)

There was a disorienting disconnect between the conference setting
and the reality of most U.S. classrooms. As in 1996, the summit was
held at IBM headquarters, a feudal-like conglomeration of office
buildings and well-manicured grounds just north of New York City. It
is a self-contained world, complete with restricted entrance (not
even taxicabs were allowed onto the grounds), helicopter landing pad,
swans and goldfish lazily swimming in a moat-like stream, guest hotel
(reportedly with computers in every room), health spa, game room
(also with computers), and gourmet dining facilities.

For those unattuned to IBM corporate culture, the media packet
stated: "Dress for the Summit is business attire."

Little at the conference was left to chance. The draft of the final
action statement was distributed weeks in advance and changed little
over the course of two days. Media observers were given few
opportunities to ask questions and were shuttled at night to a hotel
30 minutes away. The media were able to attend the main sessions,
which consisted mostly of speeches and pre-planned questions and
answers, but were barred from attending the discussion groups. Except
for a few rare moments, when a Hugh Price or a Bob Chase talked to
reporters in the halls, the media heard by and large what the
governors and corporate leaders wanted them to hear.

As a result, the U.S. public heard mostly what the conference leaders
wanted them to hear. One notable exception was a report by the
Christian Science Monitor, which focused on funding inequities and a
glaring contradiction facing summit leaders: If they believe all
students should reach high standards, shouldn't all students be given
adequate and equitable resources to do so?


The "1999 Action Statement" issued at the summit's end lays out three
key challenges: Improving Educator Quality; Helping All Students
Achieve high Standards; and Strengthening Accountability. Each
section ends with recommendations on how the three groups represented
at the conference - the governors, the business leaders, and the
education leaders - will meet the challenge. (The action statement,
along with other key documents from the summit, can be found at the
website of Achieve, the non-profit organization that oversees
implementation of the summit's recommendations. Its URL is: .

The action statement makes for dry reading. But sandwiched in between
the rhetoric and oftentimes vague phrases is an indication of how the
governors and business leaders hope to implement the next stage of
their standards reform.

--- Improving Educator Quality. One of the notable differences
between the recent gathering and previous summits was the emphasis on
teacher quality. Linked to this was the acknowledgement that teacher
salaries make a difference, especially in trying to attract people
with math and science backgrounds. As Bob Chase told a group of
reporters, "People are realizing that if you're not going to pay for
quality, then you're not going to get it."

The action statement calls for "competitive salary structures to
attract and retain the best-qualified teachers and school leaders."
But the statement, unfortunately, also links resources for
professional development and teacher training to "standards." (The
problem is that even though the action statement does not explicitly
equate standards with standardized tests, just about everything else
at the conference led to that conclusion.)

The document also encourages several emerging trends such as
alternative certification programs and standardized "content" tests
that teachers must pass before they are certified.

In one of the most specific recommendations in the entire action
plan, this section calls for merit pay plans, under which teacher
salaries will be tied to student achievement. In particular, the plan
outlines that business leaders "will help interested school systems
and teacher organizations in at least 10 states incorporate
pay-for-performance incentive plans into their salary structures,
based on lessons learned from the private sector."

Education leaders, meanwhile, are asked to "develop salary agreements
that provide salary credit for professional development only when it
is standards-based, linked to state and district priorities, and part
of a school-wide plan to raise student achievement."

It remains to be seen how these directives on teacher quality will
work out in practice, especially since these are not solidified
trends. Chase, for instance, talked of the need to move forward "at a
reasonable pace," and not to jump onto initiatives such as merit pay
as the "fad de jour." He also underscored that teacher performance
"cannot be solely based on the results that students have on a
standardized test."

Clearly, one of the battles ahead will be over how much teacher
quality will be judged by "standards," a broad concept that can
justify a variety of approaches and initiatives, and how much merely
by student results on standardized tests.

Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools. Rethinking
Schools is a non-profit, independent newspaper advocating the reform
of elementary and secondary public schools. Its emphasis is on urban
schools and issues of equity and social justice. It stresses a
grassroots perspective combining theory and practice and linking
classroom issues to broader policy concerns. It is an activist
publication and encourages teachers, parents, and students to become
involved in building quality public schools for all children. It is
published in the Milwaukee area by teachers and educators with
contributing writers from the around the country. Rethinking Schools
focuses on local and national reform. Address: Rethinking Schools,
1001 E. Keefe Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53212; Phone: (414) 964-9646;
Fax: (414) 964-7220; E-mail: ; Subscriptions:
contact - subscriptions are $12.50 per year.
End of Part I -- Part II to follow shortly.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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