Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Reagan Years: Federal Aid and Test Scores
Stressing "achievement" and "accountability" as prerequisites for government aid, the Reagan administration made schools' continuing eligibility for aid contingent on rising test scores. If schools did not produce higher scores, they would lose federal aid. According to Reagan, this expectation of rising test scores was the only way to prevent schools from prolonging their eligibility for aid by perpetuating low scores. And, yet, the expectation of ever-increasing scores on standardized tests had several unintended consequences. For example, some teachers artificially inflated scores to make students seem more successful; however, by inflating test scores, they unwittingly compromised their schools' eligibility for aid targeted specifically at programs for low-scoring students. Put simply, if fewer students posted low scores, then such programs lost enrollment and, in turn, aid.
Policy analysts Harriet Bernstein and David Merenda asserted that some urban districts actually had a disincentive to improve student achievement on standardized tests. In their words, "Since eligible children within individual schools are chosen on the basis of low achievement (and [since] the law encourages that only those with the greatest need be served), there is an additional financial disincentive to expect much and achieve well. If all the children in a Title I school were miraculously to start achieving on grade level, then the school would lose its extra positions and materials." As one test-industry critic added, the constantly growing pressure to show higher and higher scores on standardized tests "particularly harms under-achieving students, because the distorted test scores make them ineligible for remedial programs they would otherwise be entitled to." So, despite the hope that standardized tests would lead to higher achievement, it was conceivable that schools, in order to retain their grants for remedial programs serving "high-cost" students, might actually keep scores low-or low enough to maintain eligibility for aid. At the very least, schools with large numbers of low-scoring students faced the question: was it wiser to pursue high scores or low scores when both outcomes would result in lost aid?