The testing times continue for America's schools

Standardized tests, school choice, and funding will be key issues in 2001.

When it comes to the thorny problems of American education policy, there's not much place for New Year's "resolutions." Instead, the debates that swirled last year are likely to intensify.

The players include state and federal judges, a new administration about to unpack at the White House, grass-roots voucher advocates, and charter-school critics.

Here's a primer on the issues most likely to heat up in 2001 and beyond:

The standards movement.

More than half of states are now committed to the principle of tying high school graduation to performance on a state-mandated standardized test. Only a handful, however, have set timetables for such rules to kick in.

For states that have agreed to deadlines, the clock is ticking and pressure is building in the face of dire predictions that the exams will shut out large numbers of students come graduation day.

Certain states - Arizona, Virginia, and Maryland - have already begun the process of softening deadlines and requirements. Others - like Massachusetts and California, with 2003 deadlines - are being closely watched for signs of retreat.

Few believe any state is likely to break ranks and desert the standards movement altogether, although several might be thinking hard about modifications.

"Some [states] are getting quite nervous this year," says Kathy Christie, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "The degree of conversation by the public has gotten the attention of the policymakers, and they won't be backing down, but they'll be listening for valid concerns."

"You'll see some form of adjustment," agrees Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based group set up by corporate leaders and state governors to promote academic standards. But for the most part, he insists, "they are moving ahead."

Mr. Schwartz points out that those concerned about the future of the standards movement should also be closely watching President-elect George W. Bush, who has already indicated that he wants to make education his first legislative initiative. Because accountability was a major theme of Mr. Bush's campaign rhetoric on education, some are speculating he'll propose reliance on a national test as a measure of state achievement. There's some irony to that possibility, as a national benchmark was an idea floated by the Clinton administration - and scuttled by conservative Republicans.

Funding.

Should public schools continue to be financed largely by property taxes? Or do states need to find more equitable means of funding education?

These proved to be thorny issues throughout the 1990s, with court cases doing battle over such questions in New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Ohio. But the rise of the standards movement has rendered concerns about funding even more urgent.

Some legal experts are asking if those states now poised to deny high school diplomas on the basis of a single test recognize the potential for lawsuits by students, who may claim they were poorly prepared for the exam by underfunded and substandard school districts.

This month could bring a ruling in a closely watched case before the New York Supreme Court. The New York case charges that the state fails in its constitutional promise to give students in poorer districts "a sound, basic education." The plaintiffs in the case use the Regents exam - New York's state test required for high school graduation - to define a "basic education." As a result, "what's on trial here is the future of standards-based reform as well as fair funding," says Michael Rebell, executive director and counsel for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in New York. Any decision by the New York court could have ramifications nationwide.

Vouchers.

Despite defeats last year in California and Michigan, the voucher movement may find 2001 a kind year.

In addition to expecting support from a Republican White House, some voucher proponents hope for a major legal victory as well. The appeal of a vouchers case recently defeated in a US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cleveland could well be heard by the US Supreme Court sometime this year, with some analysts calling this group of justices most likely to give the movement a green light.

Charters.

Few if any states will pass new charter laws in 2001, but the numbers of charter schools will continue to grow in the 38 states that already allow them.

As the movement matures, it will come under increasing scrutiny, and could face serious civil rights challenges based on charges that these publicly funded schools serve a smaller proportion of students with special needs than do other public schools. This issue has been somewhat of a sleeper, but observers say it could deal a serious blow to the school-choice movement.

"For a publicly funded school not to provide accommodations [for special-needs students], that's breaking the law," says Mary Frances Berry, a professor of American social thought and the chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "Very rapidly there's going to be a train wreck on this issue for charter schools, with vouchers right behind it."

International rankings.

The recently released scores for 1999 international math and science tests showed US eighth-graders performing well below students from places like Japan and Korea. Further brow-furrowing over weak achievement in science and math is likely because many believe that efforts to strengthen US education in these areas have resulted in little progress.

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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