The brunt of the biggest school reform in the last half-century - that all students must meet high standards - has fallen largely on kids. They're the ones not graduating, or staying back a year, or heading to summer school if tests say they don't measure up.
But now, attention is turning to the skills of teachers and administrators. If this reform drive is to continue into the next century, critics say, the pressure to achieve must include the adults.
"It's time to pause in the pell-mell rush to high standards and high-stakes tests.... It's time to hold the adults who are responsible for public education accountable for their performance before sanctioning youngsters for their failure to perform," says Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League in New York.
That's beginning to happen:
*States are requiring failing schools to adopt reforms or risk takeover.
*Washington is demanding that states and school districts show results for federal education dollars.
*For the first time, US colleges and universities will be required to show that their teacher-training programs are effective, or risk loss of federal aid to students in those programs.
*Activists who opposed the standards movement are seeing opportunities to use it to leverage more resources for poor children and schools.
If the process takes root, it could fundamentally change the culture of US education, which has long accommodated teachers who shun outside feedback and evaluation. What's needed now, observers say, are teachers and school officials who listen to feedback and work as a team to improve student achievement.
Minority students hit hard
Students in 26 states now face tests to graduate or move to the next grade. No-pass rates are hitting poor, black, and Hispanic families especially hard: The failure rate of Latino and African-American students in Texas has been double that of Anglo students since exit exams began in 1990.
In Minneapolis, fewer than 1 in 5 black and Hispanic students passed new reading and math tests in 1997, compared with 60 percent or more of white students. (In 1998, scores improved slightly.) And experts say that minority pass rates for new English standards in New York could be even lower in some neighborhoods.
Checking up on adults
The move to evaluate adults has been slower. A first step. observers say, is to identify which schools - not just students - are failing. Last week, Massachusetts became the latest of 24 states to rate schools on the basis of a statewide test. Schools that rank "critically low" will be given two years to make mandated changes or face state takeover.
"If the state will stand by this notion that all children have or should have an opportunity to rise to the academic standards that we're setting, we have to be sure schools themselves are held to high standards," says state board of education chairman James Peyser.
Last spring, Florida started ranking schools with old-fashioned letter grades, A to F, rather than using the numbers 1 to 5. "We found that no one knew whether the 1 or the 5 was the better grade," Gov. Jeb Bush (R) told a House committee recently.
In Washington, both Democrats and GOP lawmakers are proposing using federal education dollars to make schools more accountable, yet what is meant by accountability often differs from one policy maker to another.
Washington spends $8 billion annually in its Title I program, which provides education-related funds for disadvantaged children. The White House proposes mandating a certified teacher in every classroom and an end to social promotion in districts that receive such aid. Republicans urge more flexibility in using Title I funds in exchange for accountability for results.
Last month, leading Republican candidate George W. Bush proposed allowing parents to take these funds to other public or private schools, if local schools fail to improve student achievement.
Meanwhile, civil rights activists want better enforcement of current accountability measures, an issue that will come up when Congress takes up reauthorization of this and other federal K-12 programs this month.
"Title I should not send a two-track message: that poor children only learn to basic levels," says William Taylor, vice chairman of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights in Washington. "States should provide schools with the resources they need to turn around learning for low-income kids."
No state is fully complying with current law, concludes the commission report, released last month. Districts with high proportions of poor and underachieving students were allowed to demand less of students.
Many civil rights activists once argued that reporting student achievement by race stigmatized poor students. Now, activists are beginning to use new accountability laws to claim more resources for poor schools.
In what could be a landmark federal court case, Mexican-American activists are arguing that the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) has had a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic students. "We're holding eight-year-old children accountable for a system that is failing, but not requiring schools to get the same books or the same certified teachers to teach the new standards," says Joe Sanchez, an analyst for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is arguing the case. "Since 1990, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of dropouts for minority students, a direct result of the TAAS test," he adds.
The Texas test is the most litigated high-stakes test in this decade, and so far has stood up to court challenges. The issue in such cases is whether the state and school districts are providing enough resources.
Opportunity is what counts
"Federal law does not guarantee equal results. The objective is to ensure that all students have a fair opportunity to pass the test for which they are held accountable,"says Arthur Coleman, deputy assistant secretary in the office for civil rights of the US Department of Education. The group investigated the TAAS test in 1997, and is still meeting annually with state officials to make sure there is remedial support for children in danger of failing the test.
Meanwhile, teacher-preparation programs are facing unprecedented federal scrutiny. Title II of the Higher Education Act requires colleges and universities to report the pass rate on state licensing exams for graduates, as well as other features of their programs. Low-performing programs could lose federal funding for their students, including student loans.
Lawmakers anticipated that such a requirement would shut down poor programs. Ones that cannot document the quality of their graduates run the risk of "gradual downsizing and eventual closure," stated John Nagle, a professor of educational administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in a recent article.
Such a winnowing process is crucial, say some observers. "While we have some excellent teacher-preparation programs, we have some that are very weak," says Terry Dozier, senior adviser on teaching for the US Department of Education. "Now that states are beginning to implement high-stakes accountability for the students, the next focus is whether the students have teachers who can teach to these standards - and what kind of a job are the teachers that prepare these teachers doing. The accountability has to go all the way up the line."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society