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Only about $20 of the average $8,000-per-pupil spent on education nationally goes to develop tests under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the report finds. That's a small proportion, given the tests' importance, says Thomas Toch, the report's author.
Enacted in 2002, NCLB seeks to narrow the gap in basic skills between middle-class and poor students. But the modest spending on testing could pull the rug out, with many states now forced to buy or create hastily developed, low-quality tests that measure only rudimentary skills, Toch says. Such tests make it impossible for high-performing students' scores to rise above a certain level, despite learning more. So low performers' rising scores make it appear as if the nation's "achievement gap" is closing.
"You're giving a skewed sense of student achievement," Toch says.
What's worse, he says, such tests "are encouraging teachers to make the same low-level skills the priorities of their classrooms." Rather than being a solution, he says, such testing is "fast becoming part of the problem in public education."
Kurt Landgraf, president and CEO of Educational Testing Service, says Toch overstates the problem. "I think we're still working on it but we're making real progress," he says.
Susan Aspey, Department of Education spokeswoman, says reports from states are "positive and they say they're on track to have their assessments in place, so it's premature to be making any sweeping judgments."
Toch recommends that the federal government more than double its funding, from $406 million to $860, to help states develop high-quality tests.
For decades, testing companies have sold carefully developed standardized tests to school districts. NCLB's mandates — that virtually every child in grades three through eight in every public school take annual math and reading tests tied to state standards — have forced testing companies to generate "vastly larger pools of credible test questions" on shorter timelines, the report says. Competitive pressures, high turnover and mistakes by testmakers all take their toll, with more requirements on the way.
The study estimates that public schools, which now give about 33.6 million tests under NCLB, must add another 11.4 million by the end of the current school year, straining testmakers.
Eric Bassett, research director of Eduventures, a Boston-based firm that studies the education industry, says such problems are to be expected with NCLB. "It's an issue of transition. The consensus seems to be that the NCLB-like requirements around accountability ... are here to stay, so these things will be worked out."
By Greg Toppo