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‘Multiple Measures’ Momentum

Support grows for scrapping No Child Left Behind’s reliance on one-size-fits-all tests.

By Tim Walker and Alain Jehlen

As the showdown over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), looms on Capitol Hill, influential lawmakers are sending encouraging signs that they are prepared to scuttle one of the most disfavored elements of the law—the sole reliance on testing as a means for evaluating student achievement and school performance. Most prominently, Rep. George Miller of California, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee and one of the chief architects of the 2002 law, now favors using a wider menu of factors that might include district-level assessments, end-of-course tests, graduation and attendance rates, and others to more precisely measure student learning and school performance. In late August, Rep. Miller released a draft bill that included a provision allowing multiple measures of student achievement.

Left to right: Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) discuss NCLB reauthorization with NEA President Reg Weaver and NEA Vice President Dennis Van Roekel.

Multiple measures—one of NEA’s top legislative priorities for NCLB—was also endorsed in a recent report by the Forum on Educational Accountability. The report urged lawmakers to replace one-shot tests with a slate of accountability measures that would create a “rich range of evidence” to help schools improve. The move also has the support of many civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

Burgeoning support for multiple measures comes in the midst of conflicting test score trends. Scores on some high-stakes state tests are rising. But scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—a broader achievement test—seem unaffected by NCLB.

In June, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) reported an increase in state test scores since 2002. But testing expert Robert Linn, one of six advisors for the CEP study, believes these gains may at least partly be due to the introduction of new tests. Linn, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado and former president of the American Educational Research Association, has done research showing that scores go up in the first few years of a new test, probably because teachers are adapting their teaching to that test.

“It is hard to know how much of the increase is due to this effect,” Linn says. “I personally would put more weight on state NAEP results [which have not gone up] than was done in the report.”

Harvard University testing expert Dan Koretz uses the analogy of a political poll to illustrate what happens when teachers teach to the test. A poll of 1,000 people can predict a national election very accurately, but only if those who are polled get no special attention from the campaigns. If a candidate knew which 1,000 voters were going to be called and worked extra hard to convince just those voters, the poll would show that candidate winning by a landslide—and it would be completely wrong.

Similarly, a standardized test, says Koretz, can’t cover every aspect of the subject. It’s a sample, and if teachers tailor their instruction to the specific types of questions used on the test, students can show great improvement without actually knowing any more. “Unless there’s other data corroborating the results, you can’t trust data from high-stakes tests,” Koretz concludes.

Meanwhile, new research published in the American Educational Research Association’s Educational Researcher reports that progress in raising test scores, particularly on the NAEP, was stronger before NCLB was approved in 2002, than in the four years following enactment of the law.

Members of Congress need to hear from working educators who believe one test can’t fully measure student achievement, and who see the impact of NCLB in their classrooms. Visit NEA’s Legislative Action Center at and urge your elected representatives to support multiple measures and other legislative proposals that will improve NCLB.

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