WASHINGTON – President Bush on Wednesday began his push to require high school students to take the math and reading tests now required of younger students under the No Child Left Behind (search) law, the most ambitious item on the president's slate of second-term education proposals.
"Testing is important," Bush said at J.E.B Stuart High School in this Washington suburb. "Testing at high school levels will help us become more competitive as the years go by. Testing in high schools will make sure that our children are employable for the jobs of the 21st century. ... Testing will make sure the diploma is not merely a sign of endurance, but the mark of a young person ready to succeed."
In education, Bush's focus is on high schools and on expanding the No Child Left Behind Act that is designed to raise achievement among poor and minority children and penalize schools that don't make adequate yearly progress. It's part of his campaign pledge to improve high school standards and enhance the value of high school diplomas.
"We're not interested in mediocrity," Bush said at the school, which was the lowest-performing among those in relatively prosperous Fairfax County, Va., in 1997, but met its academic goals under No Child Left Behind Act in the 2003-04 school year. "We're interested in excellence so not one single child is left behind in our country," he said.
Bush wants to require states to test students annually in reading and math in grades three through 11. That's an expansion of the law he signed in 2002, which requires those tests in grades three through eight, and at least once during grades 10 to 12.
The president also wants to require that the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (search) be administered in every state in reading and math every two years, just as it is in those subjects in grades four and eight. That would produce the first-ever state results for high school seniors on this national test, helping policy-makers evaluate their school standards.
Rep. George Miller of California, ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, has said the idea of adding testing "is going to have rough sledding, not just on Capitol Hill but I think in communities all across the country." Miller says schools are struggling to keep up with the financial burden of their existing federal requirements, let alone new ones.
Like Miller, many Democrats, who supported No Child Left Behind when Bush signed it into law three years ago, now criticize the administration for what they call lackluster spending and enforcement. Critics, including teachers' unions, argue that the funding increases have not been enough to cover the costs of the new requirements, including the expense of creating tests and processing results.
Federal spending on programs covered under No Child Left Behind has increased 40 percent since Bush took office, from $17.38 billion to $24.35 billion. But spending went up only 1.7 percent this year, about the same rate of increase the entire Education Department received.
Focusing on high school is a good idea, Steve Nousen, a federal lobbyist for the National Education Association (search), a teachers' union, said Tuesday. But he said expanding No Child Left Behind would take even more money.
"If you look at the graduation rates nationwide, there is great room for improvement," Nousen said. "We have to do something to prepare these kids for college or to be lifelong learners in the world of work. The funding in the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade is not adequate. If we try to extend it (NCLB) into the high schools, obviously it's going to take more money."
Among other proposals Bush has announced for high schools:
--$200 million for the "Striving Readers" literacy program (search). Bush asked Congress for $100 million for this fiscal year and received $25 million for the initiative, which provides grants to schools to give extra help to middle and high school students who have fallen behind in reading.
--$12 million to expand the state scholars program nationally to better prepare more students for college or the workplace.
--$500 million for states and school districts to reward teachers whose students show improved achievement.