No Child Left Behind industry leaves no test behind

Lofty goals drove the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; among them, to bring more accountability to school systems, to provide a comparison between schools and state standards, and to establish core competency goals. While educators are bitterly split over the effectiveness of this strategy, it was unquestionably successful in one respect; it created a boom market for companies that design, administer, and evaluate NCLB tests.

After failing to reauthorize this program last year, Congress will be taking another crack at it later this year. You can expect more spirited arguments about its value. You can also expect that the industry will be supporting the passage of the bill, to keep the money ($2.3 billion in 2006, according to Eduventures, Inc.) flowing. NCLB tests, and programs designed to help students prepare for it, offer a number of opportunities for companies to cash in.

Simply creating the questions can require design by curriculum specialists, field tests and psychometric evaluations. In his report Margins of Error, Thomas Toch, co-founder of the education think tank The Education Sector, estimated that Ohio spends $300-$1,000 to develop a simple multiple-choice question. The full cycle of testing requires even more steps, including goal setting, designing the structure of the test, writing the test, field testing the test, crunching numbers of the test to check for validity, then editing, printing, distributing, proctoring, gathering, anonymizing, scoring, compiling, and evaluating the results of the test. Finally, the results must be converted into an action plan for the next school year.

Added to this core business is the opportunity to help develop a curriculum to prepare for the NCLB test, to sell tests that can be administered during the school year to track preparation for the NCLB, and books and other preparation materials. And one of the beauties of NCLB is that it allows each state to create its own tests based on its own standards, which is funded (or grossly underfunded) in part with federal money. 50 different tests = $$$$.

The NCLB industry is dominated by seven companies:

Some would call this industry a house of cards, pointing to perceived shortcomings in the system. Toch reports that time and funding crunches cause states to favor simple multiple choice questions rather than more involved ones that would test the student's ability to go beyond rote memorization. He also points out that the industry is strapped for staffing, as the quantitative nature of testing draws on a pool of professionals that is already in high demand in many fields. Some parents complain that 'teaching to the test' is unfairly limiting high achievers in the classroom, while teachers chafe at the pressure to teach only what will help students pass the test.

This, however, may change under the Obama administration. Toch told me that one of the key points of contention that has stopped reauthorization to date is the question of how to properly evaluate schools. The current NCLB model measures schools by a snapshot from a single test administered once a year, and compared to a standard proficiency model. Many experts, Toch among them, are calling for a value-added approach, in which schools are rated by the progress of each student based on how far he/she had come since the start of the school year.. Such a system would open schools up to push the more gifted students ahead and not penalize those who, although less gifted, worked hard and progressed during the year.

However, Toch explains that such a value-added strategy requires better record-keeping so that the progress of students can be tracked from year to year and school system to school system. Fortunately, new Secretary of Education Duncan has expressed strong support for robust computerized record-keeping. With $100 billion set aside for education in the stimulus bill, the Department of Education's plans to distribute these funds includes "Making progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable for all students..." Toch expects Duncan to provide incentives to states to collaborate with one another in building such systems and developing common standards and assessment tools.

While this could diminish the testing industry's state-specific business, the whole idea of tracking individual student progress should open up new opportunities for tests to measure that progress. The move for computerization of records and assessment tests should also, at least in the short term, benefit the industry.

Having spent a good deal of time as a scorer for two different companies, I've seen the guts of the NCLB process. NCLB is a unwieldy beast, and these companies can easily find ways to absorb and justify all the money the federal government can throw towards them. Does the process improve education? Perhaps so, or, if not, perhaps the value-added concept will. Either way, the future of the testing industry scores straight A's.

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