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How to Reverse the Federal Testing Potlatch and Improve the Education of Low-Income Students

Mar 7, 2015 by

Sandra Stotsky – The past 50 years have witnessed the strange evolution of the chief instrument of the federal government for improving the education of low-income children—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Since its inception in 1965, it has morphed from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s effort to provide more and better educational services for poor children to a set of policies designed to control all aspects of public education through annual tests in reading and mathematics but with no discernible benefit for low-income children. Ironically, ESEA has evolved in ways that now actually damage their education, although few supporters or critics of ESEA would acknowledge that.

When did ESEA begin to evolve in the opposite direction of what its sponsors intended (i.e., to provide federal funds for supplementary services to poor children)? It did so when federal policy makers first required tests in the name of accountability—the conceptual catalyst for changes in ESEA’s focus. Test-based accountability came into being when the Clinton administration added the requirement of one test at each educational level (elementary, middle, and high school) in the 1994 re-authorization of ESEA. For a description of the changes in ESEA at the time, see, for example, The Clinton administration even tried to develop two “voluntary national tests,” one in reading in grade 4 and the other in mathematics in grade 8, but Congress quickly pulled the plug on that idea.

A major increase in testing requirements came about with the 2002 re-authorization of ESEA, called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Potlatching testing requirements had become the chief activity to satisfy the idea of accountability and the organizations professing to champion the interests of poor children (e.g., Education Trust, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Achieve, Inc.)

In exchange for increased Title I funds, states and local school districts had to show that they were regularly improving the education of poor children in the form of increases in state test scores, disaggregated for specific demographic groups, first in reading and mathematics in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school, but later in science as well at each of the three educational levels. This huge increase in grade-level testing, which took place without broad discussions of its possible educational consequences, was accompanied by a mandate to the schools to ensure if not strengthen the academic competence of all teachers (Part B of NCLB). Teachers had to demonstrate they knew the subjects they taught, whether by having completed a major or graduate degree in the subject, by having passed a test of the subject for licensure, or by working out and completing a plan for professional development in the subject.

Were there meaningful increases in achievement for poor students? Not on national tests for reading—the basic subject in the curriculum. The overall profile of trends in reading at grades 4 and 8 on the main tests given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was flat, as noted by Mark Schneider, former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in a monograph for the Fordham Institute in 2011. (The Accountability Plateau, December 28, 2011.

And for the high school years, the general profile in both reading and mathematics on the long-term trend tests given by NAEP since the 1970s was a plateau. In reading, the average scale score for age 17 students was 285 in 1971 and 287 in 2012. In mathematics, the average scale score for age 17 students was 300 in 1978 and 306 in 2012. And this after billions of federal dollars to the states under Title I.

As economist Helen Ladd concluded in comments on a 2010 Brookings Institution paper by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob on the impact of NCLB on schools, teachers, and students: (

First, the null findings for reading indicate to me that to the extent that higher reading scores are an important goal for the country, NCLB is clearly not the right approach. That raises the obvious follow-up question: what is?…”

Ladd did not say that annual multi-subject testing is not the right approach. Yet, there have been few if any hints in the writings of education policy makers or researchers since 2010 that the plateau in reading warranted more scrutiny. If anything, Schneider’s monograph seemed to suggest the situation was close to hopeless—that the “foundation for reading is far more dependent on what happens early in children’s lives—before they enroll in school…”

Nor have policy makers or researchers suggested that approaches other than grade-level standards, annual tests based on them, and a range of penalties for low-performing schools should be explored as the quid pro quo for Title I funds in the name of accountability. Just the opposite message seems to have been inferred by federal education policy makers in 2010—the year that most states, seduced by Race to the Top grants, adopted Common Core’s standards and committed themselves to membership in one or more federally-funded testing consortia. Continuing potlatch testing policies, the Obama administration added test requirements in K-2.

However, potlatch testing policies may have peaked in 2010. Some states like New York have tossed out standardized testing in K-2 in the face of widespread parent protests after test trials in the primary grades. See, for example, and Moreover, the 2015 ESEA re-authorization drafts offered by Senator Lamar Alexander and Representative John Kline talk only about the NCLB testing framework (grades 3-8 and once in high school). However, there has been no talk about returning to the 1994 ESEA testing framework, even though no legal principle prevents downsizing the ESEA testing framework to something comparable to the testing practices in other countries.

Title I funds remain the incentive for local and state authorities to give up control of K-12 curriculum and instruction (by requiring all public school students to take non-state-specific tests addressing Common Core’s standards), whether or not they believe that federal lawmakers know what they are doing. Not only have state and local school authorities adopted state standards and state tests, and then common standards and common tests, with little evidence that they have benefited low-income children (or any children at all), they have insisted on the continuation of federal funds despite the problems they have introduced in the form of teaching personnel.

Most Title I money has been spent on teaching personnel (for example, Title I reading teachers and teaching aides) and instructional material, as required by law. But, despite the plateau in reading, there has been no research to find out why these teachers and aides have apparently been so useless. Clues did appear in an American Institutes of Research (AIR) report on Title I expenditures in the late 1990s:

Paraprofessionals were widely used for teaching and helping to teach students, although their educational backgrounds do not prepare many of them for such responsibilities. Title I teacher aides reported that 60 percent of their time was spent on teaching or helping to teach students. Moreover, 41 percent of Title I aides reported that half or more of the time they spent teaching or helping to teach students was on their own, without a teacher present, and 76 percent spent at least some of their time teaching without a teacher present. Although 99 percent of these aides had a high school diploma or a GED, only 25 percent (and 10 percent in the highest-poverty schools) had a bachelor’s degree.

(Study of Education Resources and Federal Funding: Final Report. American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC; Department of Education, Washington, DC. Planning and Evaluation Service. REPORT NO: ED-PES-2000-04 (2000). ED 445 178, UD 033 792)

What this report obliquely tells us is that in their efforts to teach low-income students how to read or do arithmetic (better or at all), schools hired under-qualified teaching aides to do what more qualified classroom teachers had not been able to do.

In an ironic twist, Senator Alexander and Representative Kline have been promoting a re-authorization of ESEA that removes the one feature of NCLB for which there is evidence: the requirement that teachers should demonstrate mastery of the subjects they teach. It is, in fact, the only characteristic of an effective teacher for which there is consistent research evidence, as the National Mathematics Advisory Panel found (Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, U.S. Department of Education: Washington, DC, 2008).

Instead, the bill seems to recommend only state licensure to ensure that teachers have the “necessary subject matter knowledge and teaching skills in the academic subjects that they teach.”  Since most licensure tests for prospective K-8 teachers are at the middle school level and do not require test-takers to demonstrate mastery of any subject area, including the teaching of reading, reliance on most current state licensure requirements will serve to continue the NAEP plateau in reading for low-income children (S. Stotsky, An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests. Rowman & Littlefield, March 2015). They will be taught by minimally competent teachers, as will other children. But they will not have parents who can compensate for their minimally-knowledgeable teachers.

WHAT CAN BE DONE? First, ESEA can be re-authorized to require low-income children to be taught by teachers and aides who have demonstrated mastery of reading instructional knowledge. Second, state legislatures can pass laws to support that requirement.

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