President Bush yesterday proposed extending federal testing and accountability requirements to the nation's high schools, which for decades have been plagued by troubling dropout rates and flagging achievement levels.
In a speech at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, the president outlined a $1.5 billion plan that would require students to take annual tests in reading and mathematics through 11th grade. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which Bush signed into law three years ago, public school students are required to take annual tests in grades 3 through 8. Schools face an escalating series of sanctions if students perform poorly on the exams.
"Testing is important. Testing at high school levels will help us to become more competitive as the years go by," Bush said. "Testing in high schools will make sure that our children are employable for the jobs of the 21st century."
Bush's plan to expand the testing requirements into secondary school was applauded by education advocates, who noted that school improvement efforts most often focus on students in lower grades despite clear shortcomings among high school students.
"We're excited to see the federal government step up its involvement in high schools, long the most ignored and least effective part of our educational system," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director for education programs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In recent years, the Gates foundation has invested $800 million in high school improvement projects around the country.
Stuart Principal Mel Riddile, who introduced Bush in a gymnasium decorated with football and track championship banners, said the president's plan will prod educators to do more to help low-achieving students.
"What I said to the president is: The end of the book is just as important as the beginning of the book," Riddile said. "The students need instruction at every level, particularly if they come from a disadvantaged background."
Just 36 percent of the nation's high school seniors are proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a respected federal test. The picture is even bleaker when it comes to math, a subject in which only 17 percent of the nation's 12th-graders are proficient, according to the latest NAEP statistics. Those achievement levels have changed only slightly since the 1970s.
Currently, about 68 percent of the nation's ninth-graders graduate from high school, with the others dropping out or earning equivalency diplomas. And among those students who graduate and go on to college, more than half are forced to take remedial classes, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
"We should have turned our attention to high school a long time ago," said Patricia Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy, a research organization. "But there is a belief that if you get it right with students by third grade, you're golden. But the problem is, we're not getting it right."
Bush's plan was met with immediate skepticism from congressional Democrats, who say that despite sharp increases in federal education spending in recent years, the No Child Left Behind Act remains underfunded.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said that Bush undercut his credibility with many Democrats by not putting more money into the No Child Left Behind law. "This proposal for high school, regardless of what merits it might or might not have, will encounter stiff resistance in Congress and in the country until President Bush fulfills the commitments that have already been made to our public schools," Miller said. "Adding new mandates while schools lack the resources to meet the current demands will not help schools."
In his remarks, Bush said that he will earmark $1.5 billion for the proposal in his upcoming budget, but much of the money will come from existing programs. "We've got money in the budget to help the states implement the tests. There should be no excuse saying, well, it's an unfunded mandate," Bush said. "Forget it -- it will be funded."
The president also proposed increasing funding for rigorous Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. The programs are popular among high-achieving students and have become a virtual requirement for those who hope to attend selective colleges.
Bush asked Congress to increase funding for two small programs that train high school teachers in math and reading instruction for under-performing students. "It sounds odd, doesn't it, for the president to stand up and say we need to focus on reading in high school," Bush said, "but that's the state of affairs."
Bush said one of the reasons he wanted to come to Stuart was that the diverse school had long struggled academically but has made a dramatic turnaround in recent years. Riddile, who said teachers rely on standardized tests to track each student's performance, attributes the success to programs such as mandatory after-school tutoring for failing students, remedial reading classes and wake-up calls for students. More than 50 percent of the approximately 1,500 students live in poverty, and about 66 percent do not speak English as a native language.
In 1998, only 65 percent of juniors at Stuart passed Virginia's standardized English test. But last year, 94 percent passed. The school's SAT scores climbed more than 100 points in the past five years, and about 90 percent of seniors go on to college.
Said Riddile: "If we can do it, anybody can do it."