Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Clinton Years: High Stakes Testing and OTL
By the mid-1990s, federal pressure to spur state and local accountability in student achievement was widely accepted. Indeed, the states responded quickly to more stringent federal expectations for measurable performance. In many cases, they had already begun to adopt some of the same reforms on their own. In New York, for example, the state Regents built on their long-standing practice of aligning curriculum standards and assessments-setting higher learning standards, revising the state's assessment system, and building the capacity of local schools to support high student achievement. In 1996, as part of this effort, the Regents approved new learning standards to be phased in gradually: all students graduating from high school would be required to pass state Regents exams in English, math, global history, U.S. history, and natural science.
Requiring students to pass standardized exams before graduating or progressing from grade to grade-a practice known as "high-stakes" testing, which had been used in some states for quite some time-gained momentum in the 1990s. For example, the state supreme court in Massachusetts upheld the use of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) as a graduation test. According to the court, barring the state from using the test as a graduation requirement would "undermine educator accountability and hinder education reform." Earlier attempts to make graduation contingent on the passage of a statewide test had fallen on the grounds that the tests bore little or no relation to the specific curriculum or subject matter that students encountered in the classroom. However, systemic reforms in general, and the MCAS in particular, fulfilled this expectation because their contents were tied directly to state-mandated content standards.
The concept of "opportunity-to-learn" (OTL) and OTL standards became a major issue as state and local governments began to test more and use the results for decisions that made a high impact on the lives of students and teachers. As states increasingly used tests to determine eligibility for promotion and graduation, some groups began to advocate for OTL standards as the appropriate measures of what students should be expected to achieve. How could students be expected to test well if they had not been taught the content to be tested? States and localities did not normally have OTL standards, because they were concerned that the practice would leave states open to a flood of lawsuits and prove prohibitively expensive in many cases. The concerns on this issue led eventually to major court cases for "equity" based on "adequacy."