Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Reagan Years: Testing and Dropouts
In 1983, in order to accommodate the new emphasis on testing and the need for more sophistication in test administration, the federal contract for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was transferred from the Educational Commission of the States (ECS) to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the frequency of the exams increased. As test industry analyst Lorrie Shepard has noted, data collection strategies expanded to include a few additional test variables: "[student] background and [school] program variables were added to help in interpreting results, and sophisticated scaling methods were introduced to produce a single summary score that could be more readily understood by the public." With voters and legislators increasingly focused on test scores as a tool to enforce "accountability" in schools, the NAEP joined other state-level tests designed to track student performance (or basic skills or "minimum competency") in schools. A number of states, including Texas, California, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Arizona were leaders in the development of statewide tests in the 1980s.
At first, the increasing frequency of tests seemed to lead to improved scores. At the same time, students became more adept at taking standardized tests. Over time, however, these early gains came under suspicion. In 1984, a few schools began to admit that, even as test scores had increased, so had dropout rates. "For the first time, we are seeing high-school dropout rates increasing," former state commissioner of education in Massachusetts, Greg Anrig, revealed. "Does this mean we are getting higher standards, or does the threat of tests encourage teachers just to get rid of kids who might not pass? In other words, are we having more push-outs? And doesn't that tend to hurt minorities?" By 1984, the high-school dropout rate in Boston exceeded 40 percent of all students. "The dropout problem is an extremely serious matter," the Boston Globe reported, "particularly since most of those who quit do so during the freshman or sophomore year."