In Iowa, nationalized student achievement scores have been going up in recent years, and that's a good thing. But are kids learning better?
Steve Dunbar, a University of Iowa professor who directs the office monitoring public school testing in the state, says he doesn't know for sure, and that's one of of the rubs of standardized testing, which is more widespread and holds more consequence for schools since enactment of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.
But that's why NCLB needs to be reauthorized this year, he said. From Dunbar's standpoint, the reauthorization would continue a needed national program to assess quality of education. In the process, reauthorization would need to offer more money to areas of the program that are underfunded, and some of the problems that have been identified would need to be fixed.
"I actually do believe that test scores can serve as an indicator for student achievement. They are not one in the same thing, but you need to have some general indicator. ... And I believe test scores are able to do that," Dunbar told FOXNews.com Wednesday in a telephone interview.
While proponents stress the need for NCLB reauthorization in Congress, a number of plans introduced in the Senate and House seek to reform the act. Lawmakers intend to complete work on reauthorization by the end of this year, but without action by year's end, it is unlikely to get another look until 2009, after the next presidential and congressional elections.
Those pushing for reauthorization may have a new tool to prod fellow lawmakers. On Tuesday, the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank released its findings on one of the broadest assessments on the federally mandated tests scores under the No Child act, and what they found was encouraging to the bill's supporters.
In their study — which included data from all 50 states — the group found that most states were showing improvement in reading and math scores. The most gains were made in mathematics at the elementary school level — where 22 out of 25 states showed gains in the both ways they looked at the data.
But gains were made in middle and high schools also, for instance: reading scores improved in 20 out of 39 states; and high school reading improved in 16 out of 37. The study also pointed out that test scores show a narrowing of the achievement gap between white students and minorities, including black, Hispanic and low-income students.
The new study is a boost for reauthorization efforts, said a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate committee that is developing the reauthorization bill.
"It's helpful," said Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner, adding that she believed the authorization could happen this year. "We're very hopeful. I think the senator wants to see the promises made five years ago made good."
The study notes that there's no way to tell whether the increases are because of NCLB policy, a point taken up by the American Federation of Teachers union president, Edward McElroy.
"Test results reflect the accumulation of many years’ work," McElroy said in a prepared statement.
"The upward trend dates from before the No Child Left Behind Act, and we believe it is likely that these results primarily reflect standards-based reforms put in place in the 1990s," he said, adding, "Our members tell us that the overemphasis on testing and test preparation, which has intensified since NCLB’s passage, has led to a narrowing of the curriculum.
"We urge Congress to take heart in these results but also to be thoughtful about what brought them about," McElroy said.
And National Education Association President Reg Weaver issued a cautionary statement over the findings.
"We should be cautious and remember that NCLB was not and is not the only education reform effort in place. ... If anything, this report should sound an alarm that we are drawing conclusions without all the facts," Weaver said. "Essentially, the report reinforces that NCLB has done very little to improve accountability and not nearly enough to close the achievement gaps."
But Dunbar said it is good news to hear that numbers are trending positively for the achievement gap.
"It is really evidence of where this law, I think, was directed. ... It is where we should expect to see, we would hope to see, the greatest effects," Dunbar said.
One of the problems before NCLB, Dunbar said, is that some schools weren't taking steps to make sure all students were taking achievement tests, including minority groups that generally test at lower levels than white counterparts.
In a statement Tuesday, Kennedy said the study "proves that progress is possible in our public schools," but he pointed to data showing some states declined against national benchmarks. "Every student deserves an opportunity to learn at high standards, regardless of where they live or study," he said.
At least on the Senate side, Kennedy hopes to introduce the reauthorization later this summer and send it out of his committee by the end of August, preparing it for consideration on the floor by the end of the year.
Dunbar said he also hopes the reauthorization comes through.
"It would be premature to radically disrupt the work that states have done all over the country to try to develop testing programs that would satisfy the requirements," of NCLB, he said, adding: "I think they might miss the opportunity to nudge this legislation in a direction that would, I would say, improve student learning — as well as raise test scores."