Conn. Stands in Defiance on Enforcing 'No Child'

Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg says better integration of current tests with the curriculum is one way to improve student performance.
Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg says better integration of current tests with the curriculum is one way to improve student performance. (By Michael Dobbs -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

HARTFORD, Conn. -- In the weeks since she announced she would resist Bush administration demands for additional standardized testing, Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg has received dozens of generally laudatory messages from parents and teachers. "You go, girl," wrote one correspondent. "We have enough tests," e-mailed another. "Keep the faith!"

There is a mouse-that-roared quality to Connecticut's rebellion against the national No Child Left Behind Act. With just over a half-million students, the state school system is smaller than that of some big cities. But there is nothing small about the fight Connecticut officials have picked with the federal government, a dispute that combines states' rights, underfunded federal mandates and educational philosophy.

"We've got better things to spend our money on," says Sternberg, explaining why she is opposed to a provision in the federal law that requires states to test students annually, beginning next year. "We won't learn anything new about our schools by giving these extra tests."

In the four months since her appointment as secretary of education, former White House aide Margaret Spellings has been trying to stamp out a grass-roots rebellion against the Bush administration's signature education law by allowing states greater flexibility in interpreting it. But the showdown with Connecticut suggests that the revolt has acquired new momentum and that there are limits on the administration's willingness to accommodate local concerns.

Connecticut officials, like educators in several other states, argue that No Child Left Behind needlessly duplicates many of their own accountability measures, which were put in place long before the federal law and provide ample information about how students are performing.

Several other states have mounted protests against the 2002 law, which requires all public school students to be proficient in math and reading by 2013 and imposes sanctions on school districts that fail to meet federal progress targets. Utah says its laws will take priority over federal laws. Bush and Spellings's home state of Texas has exempted as much as 9 percent of its students from the test because of various "disabilities."

Last month, the nation's largest teacher's union, the National Education Association, joined with school districts in three states to sue the federal government for failing to fund the law adequately.

The Connecticut rebellion has transformed Sternberg, 55, from an obscure bureaucrat into a national symbol of resistance to No Child Left Behind. She has been joined by the state's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who has threatened a lawsuit over funding, and local school superintendents who are dragging their feet implementing the law.

Federal officials have fired back by accusing Connecticut of tolerating one of the nation's largest "achievement gaps" -- the margin between low-performing minority students and high-performing white students. Spellings infuriated Connecticut officials by depicting opponents of No Child Left Behind as "un-American" in an interview for the PBS "NewsHour" program recently.

A Democrat who was named to run the Connecticut Department of Education in 2003, Sternberg says she is not opposed to standardized tests on principle. Indeed, she spent much of her 24-year career in the department developing the Connecticut Mastery Test, one of the oldest school accountability systems in the country. Her complaint is with the frequency of the tests, and how they are used by teachers.

Like other states, Connecticut tests students in the fourth, sixth and eighth grades in reading and math. Under No Child Left Behind, states will be required to test grades three through eight, and at least once in high school, starting in the next school year. State auditors say Connecticut will have to spend $41 million of its own funds to meet the requirements of the federal law from 2002 to 2008.

Sternberg concedes that Connecticut's achievement gap "looks horrendous" but blames demographics. Black students, who predominantly live in big cities, are performing about the same as black students in other states, she said. White students, who tend to live in the suburbs, are faring significantly better than white students nationwide.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which styles itself the "nation's report card," black fourth-graders trailed their white counterparts in Connecticut by 42 points in a reading proficiency test in 2003, compared with a 27 percent gap nationwide.

The answer, says Sternberg, is not more standardized testing but better integration of existing tests with the curriculum of predominantly minority schools. To illustrate her point, she takes a reporter to visit Dwight Elementary School in Hartford, which has succeeded in dramatically closing the achievement gap through a system of regular monitoring of students by teachers to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Administered every six to eight weeks, the informal tests offer much more information than the state tests about student performance, principal Kathleen Greider said. If a student is doing poorly, there is immediate feedback. It is not necessary to wait an average of 3 1/2 months to get the results back from the state.

"Analyzing and acting on the data is more important than throwing more tests at the students," reading coordinator Martha McMahon said.

Supporters of No Child Left Behind argue that the internal school tests are no substitute for the annual standardized tests required by the law.

"If you leave assessment design to individual schools, you will get vastly different standards," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a D.C.-based advocacy group that has been lobbying for higher federal standards. "Schools serving affluent kids will tend to expect more from their students. Schools serving less-affluent kids will expect less."

Judging from newspaper editorials and letters to the editor, which have been running strongly in Sternberg's favor, the revolt against No Child Left Behind appears to have broad support in Connecticut. The state has a history of opposition to the law, with several school districts opting to reject federal funds altogether rather than submit to onerous paperwork.

"I think we are doing enough testing in Connecticut," said Greg Florio, superintendent of the Cheshire school district, which has turned down $100,000 in federal funds over the past two years to avoid many of the bureaucratic problems associated with the law. "I'm not sure that more testing in the off-years is going to tell us anything that we don't already know."

Opting out of No Child Left Behind altogether is not feasible on the state level, said Sternberg, because Connecticut could lose about $109 million in annual federal subsidies. Rather than reject the federal guidelines altogether, she has chosen a strategy of bluster and brinkmanship.

Just how far Connecticut will push its rebellion against No Child Left Behind is unclear. Blumenthal, the attorney general, has yet to deliver on his threat to sue the federal government, and Sternberg has asked test developers to make the necessary preparations for annual testing. She says she will be in a difficult situation if a solution is not found soon, because the state legislature has prohibited the use of state funds for additional testing.

Federal officials, meanwhile, say they are eager to reach a compromise with Connecticut and other states but are unwilling to flout federal law. They have suggested that the state offer a scaled-down version of its mastery test in the off-grades, which would save money but meet federal requirements.

"We are trying to acknowledge the uniqueness of every state," said Deputy Education Secretary Raymond Simon, the Bush administration's primary liaison in the negotiations with Connecticut. "But for every Connecticut, there are a whole lot more states out there that are doing good things.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company