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Bush, 'No Child Left Behind', and National Testing

Bush brings praise to Md.

By Liz Bowie and Julie Hirschfeld Davis
Sun reporters
Originally published January 10, 2006

Visiting a Glen Burnie elementary school yesterday, President Bush said he remains firmly opposed to creating a national test and curriculum for children across the country, saying the federal government should stay out of the business of deciding what is taught in schools.

Evidence that states might be writing overly easy exams has recently led to calls for more federal intervention, but Bush said he and other officials rejected that approach in crafting the landmark No Child Left Behind Act.

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"There was great pressure to say, 'Let's have a federal test,'" he said. "We did not design a federal test. ... [The law] makes sure that the state had the option and the opportunity to say to the local superintendent and principals, 'Design your own program.'"

Bush came by helicopter to North Glen Elementary School to mark the fourth anniversary of the signing of the education legislation.

The tiny school in a middle-class neighborhood has successfully shrunk the gap between the performance of its African-American students and its white students on state tests.

After spending time in classrooms, Bush entered an auditorium filled with politicians, administrators, parents, teachers and children who cheered as the president praised the school.

Former Principal Maurine Larkin said North Glen's success has been in part the result of federal funding that allowed her to increase the amount of attention teachers paid to minority students who were behind. In addition, she said, a new reading textbook that emphasizes phonics and a new math series helped to raise test scores.

The school's scores on the Maryland School Assessments have risen significantly in the past several years, particularly in third-grade reading and math and among African-Americans.

Before the passage of the No Child Left Behind law, the state required testing, but it did not give schools scores for individual students, nor did it monitor the achievement of minorities, poor children and special education students.

"I felt [the law] focused everybody and the excuses were gone," Larkin said.

In 2003, 57 percent of the North Glen students passed the state reading test, compared with 82 percent two years later. And the school's African-American population's scores in reading rose from 45 percent to 84 percent during that period.

"This is a fine school," Bush said. "We're here to herald excellence."

Local school districts in Maryland and across the nation have generally reported a rise, sometimes quite sharp, in test scores in the past three years. The rise is important because schools must have an increasing number of students passing the test or face sanctions and the loss of federal money.

But some education advocates question whether states are gradually dumbing down their tests so that more students pass and their school systems can meet the targets. They point to results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to a sample of children around the country, that were far less rosy last year.

For instance, 32 percent of students in Maryland passed the NAEP fourth-grade reading test, while 81 percent of fourth-graders passed the state's test.

South Carolina, on the other hand, is regarded as having a tougher state test, and its students scored about the same on NAEP as the state tests.

That has led to a call for a mandatory national test linked to No Child Left Behind. Even some conservative think tanks, such as the Fordham Foundation, support such a national test.

Michael J. Petrilli, vice president of Fordham, suggested Bush's remarks yesterday were an effort to take middle ground between the conservatives in many states who see the education measure as a federal intrusion and those who are calling for a national test.

Local superintendents and school boards in Maryland say they would oppose any attempt by the federal government to dictate what is taught. Bush's remarks were consistent with his earlier stance on national testing and local control of education.

Democrats rushed to criticize the president for what they said was empty rhetoric on the No Child law, which they accused him of undermining through inadequate funding. They called on him to increase spending on it in the budget he is to unveil next month.

Many Democrats who joined Bush to craft and enact the law, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a pivotal player in the bipartisan deal, note that Bush has spent $40 billion less than the law authorizes for education improvements.

Bush "still doesn't realize that No Child Left Behind was a promise, not a political slogan," Kennedy said in a statement. The measure has yielded "some encouraging results" because of the hard work of teachers and school administrators, Kennedy said, but that came in spite of Bush.

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Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland said Bush and congressional Republicans "deserve an F ' for shortchanging the program. Urging Bush to spend more on implementing the law, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore said doing so would provide an additional $83 million to help about 60,000 low-income children in Maryland improve their academic performance. It would also yield significant funding boosts, he said, for after-school programs and teacher training.

Bush won over several North Glen fifth-graders who visited with him briefly before the speech, some of whom said afterward that they were proud to have been singled out by the president for their achievements.

"I learned that he was a really nice guy," said Arek Black, a bespectacled 10-year-old who said he would have voted for Bush had he been old enough last year. "He surprised me with how much he takes responsibility for the whole country."

Eric Coakley, an 11-year-old classmate of Black's, said Bush proved to be "a nicer guy than I actually thought he was," adding that the visit showed that "he actually cares about us, actually cares about the kids, and he wants to help us get into college."

Coakley, bubbly and talkative as he reflected on Bush's visit, said he had always wanted to be a comedian but is now thinking "it might be cool to be president."

Bush "made us feel that even if you think that you don't have the intelligence or the opportunity to learn, you still should try your best," said Jasmine Coates, 11.

"It was really cool 'cause I am probably, like, one of the kids out of a million people who get to see the president," said 10-year-old Tyler Kammerdiener.

Even the principal, Julie Little-McVearry, was overflowing with happiness after the visit that included a brief discussion between Bush and the fifth-graders. She felt her students had showed off their minds.

"We were even prouder of them than we were before," she said.

© MBM

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