Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The George W. Bush Years: NCLB - Testing, Accountability, and Reading
In general, President Bush concentrated the administration's objectives for NCLB on student testing, school accountability, and a new reading initiative. Throughout the congressional negotiations, the administration refused to compromise on one item in particular: the requirement that all students in grades three through eight take annual standardized tests (developed by the states). Bush knew that a majority of Americans had come to see testing as a way to promote fiscal accountability as well as educational excellence and equity in education. Only when all students, even those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, could demonstrate the same level of achievement on the same tests would the public come to believe that true "equity" or "equal educational opportunities" existed in the public schools. Many states, in most cases supported by Goals 2000 funds, had already designed testing regimes, which may or may not have matched NCLB's requirement that all students in grades three through eight be tested every year in English, mathematics, and eventually science. Testing systems that relied on sampling students rather than testing every student, or those that used benchmark tests in certain grades, had to be redesigned or supplemented to comply with the new law.
Key testing provisions in NCLB had been operating in Texas when George W. Bush was governor of that state. By 2001 forty-nine states had started to set content standards and mandate tests for graduation and grade promotion (though state tests were not necessarily aligned with local curricula in a "systemic" way). However, relying on states to set their own standards led to widely varying definitions of "proficiency" in different states. As Lorrie Shepard noted in 2002, "In Colorado, many legislators are aware that Governor Owens intended to create a testing system like the one in Texas. They do not know, however, that Colorado proficiency standards were set at the 50th to the 90th percentile (across different subject areas), whereas in Texas they were set at the 25th percentile in reading and the 44th percentile in mathematics. It is not surprising, then, that Texas has very high 'passing' rates on the TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills]."