Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Carter Years: Basic Skills Testing - Pro and Con
Beginning in 1978, a number of states began to roll out comprehensive programs on basic skills improvement. These policies (spurred in part by promises of federal grants for such programs) asked states to "mandate assessment of basic skills achievement at the earliest grade levels feasible and at each appropriate grade level thereafter. . . ." By testing students' basic skills, states hoped to be able to assess the overall effectiveness of schools and hold both teachers and administrators publicly accountable for measurable results. (Such plans were not, however, totally new. As early as 1973-1974, Massachusetts had begun to collect data on statewide achievement levels. The state sought "specific measures for evaluating the progress of each student and the success of each educational program," asserting that "These accountability gauges shall be systematic and public and shall make use of standardized measures of progress such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP]." Moreover, New York had statewide "Regents" exams as early as the 1870s.)
The emphasis on basic-skills competency testing attracted a great deal of attention by the late 1970s-but it also attracted criticism. As one policy analyst in Massachusetts observed, "If all that public education tried to do was, for example, assure age-in-grade attainment levels in basic skills, then it is relatively easy to measure effectiveness and not much more difficult to obtain statistically meaningful bases for [comparing] effectiveness between school systems and over time. [Yet,] If public education has a broader mission, and if that mission may vary substantially from situation to situation, then . . . the effort to develop and apply universal measures of effectiveness may cause an unwanted shift of [educational] goals toward achieving 'good marks' on those measures, even if they are regarded as inappropriate. Simplistic applications of systems analysis could set education back to the days when what schools did was prepare children to take certain tests." In other words, state-mandated basic skills competency testing could drive schools to "teach to the test" without necessarily offering a well-rounded, holistic, general, or "authentic" education to their students.