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Education Week

NCLB Testing Said to Give 'Illusions of Progress'

Scott J. Cech

"This is officially sanctioned malpractice-if we did this in health, in medical practice, we'd all be dead by now," Bella Rosenberg, an education expert, said of the testing system under the NCLB law. "The fact is, we're doing a great job of obscuring instead of illuminating achievement gaps." (Comstock-Corbis)

WASHINGTON - Harvard University researcher Daniel M. Koretz had some good news
and some bad news today for policymakers looking ahead to the
reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act: The nation's
K-12 students are now attending Lake Wobegon schools.

is, he said, for reasons that are politically better but academically
worse, rampantly inflated standardized test scores are giving the
misbegotten impression that, as in the fictional town made famous by
radio personality Garrison Keillor, all children are above average.

know that we are creating, in many cases, with our test-based
accountability system, illusions of progress," Mr. Koretz told a
roomful of policymakers and educators at a panel discussion here hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

Mr. Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard's graduate school of education who has written a new book, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us,
added that under the No Child Left Behind law, widespread teaching to
the test, strategic reallocation of teaching talent, and other means of
gaming the high-stakes testing system have conspired to produce scores
on state standardized tests that are substantially better than
students' mastery of the material.

"If you tell people that
performance on that tested sample is what matters, that's what they
worry about, so you can get inappropriate responses in the classroom
and inflated test scores," he said, citing research in the 1990s on the
state standardized test then in use in Kentucky, which was designed to
measure similar aspects of proficiency as the National Assessment of
Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card."

on both tests should have moved more or less in lock step, he said. But
instead, 4th grade reading scores rose dramatically on the state test,
which in many ways resembled an NCLB-test prototype, from 1992 to 1994,
while sliding slightly on the NAEP over the same period.

you're a parent in Kentucky, what you care about is whether your kids
can read, not how well they can do on the state test," Mr. Koretz said.
"And the national assessment told us that in fact the gains in the
state test were bogus."

Obscuring or Illuminating?


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Rosenberg, an education consultant and a longtime special assistant to
the American Federation of Teachers' late president, Albert Shanker,
echoed many of Mr. Koretz's critiques.

"This is officially
sanctioned malpractice-if we did this in health, in medical practice,
we'd all be dead by now," she said of the testing system under the NCLB
law. "The fact is, we're doing a great job of obscuring instead of
illuminating achievement gaps."

But fellow panelist Roberto
Rodriguez, a senior education adviser to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,
D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and
Pensions Committee who helped shepherd the NCLB law through Congress in
2001, cautioned against "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

a more effective accountability system "needs to be a goal, I would
argue, of the upcoming reauthorization of the ESEA," he said, referring
to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is now known as
NCLB, "summative assessment is a critically important area of

With regard to the tug-of-war between
advocates of the current standards-based system and detractors who
prefer a system that better reflects the curriculum, Mr. Rodriguez
said, "I think we can have our cake and eat it too."

M. Evers, the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for
planning, evaluation, and policy development, who attended the panel
discussion, suggested that any changes to the NCLB law should preserve
its essence. "Some are proposing changes in accountability that remove
consequences; this would make it accountability in name only," Mr.
Evers said in an e-mail. "Results should be comparable statewide, or
parents, taxpayers, and teachers themselves can't tell how students are


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