In Second Term, Bush Must Choose Between Tests and School Choice

Published March 1, 2005

During his inaugural address on January 25, President George W. Bush made clear his intent to push for continuing reform of the nation’s education system, and in particular to extend reform into the nation’s high schools.

With freedom as the major theme of the address, Bush spoke of reforming great institutions to meet the needs of our time, and in an allusion to the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), he said, “we will bring the highest standards to our schools.”

Two weeks before the inaugural address, on January 12, Bush outlined his proposal to expand the testing and accountability provisions of NCLB into high schools. Speaking at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Washington, DC, the president said he wants to require states to test high school students annually in math and reading, as is already required of younger students under NCLB.

Budgeting Additional Funds

Bush’s Fiscal Year 2006 budget includes $1.2 billion for high school intervention to help states hold high schools accountable for teaching all students and providing remedial instruction to students who fall behind grade level.

The proposal includes $250 million to help states create assessments for measuring achievement. The president’s proposal also includes funds for improving reading skills of high school students, to enhance math and science programs in secondary schools, and to train teachers to teach Advanced Placement courses.

U.S. Department of Education news releases cite low test scores and other indicators of lagging achievement as motivating factors for turning attention to America’s secondary schools. For example, the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed America’s 15-year-olds performed below the international average in mathematics and scientific literacy, placing 27th of 39 countries.

Pushing for Parental Choice

Although most reformers and education experts agree there is reason to be concerned about the quality of U.S. secondary education, there are a variety of opinions about whether rigorous high school testing is the right solution. Some groups, such as the Gates Foundation, advocate making schools smaller. Others recommend making the high school experience more relevant and individualized.

Efforts to make it easier for high school students to enroll in college courses while still in high school also have been suggested. Advocates of school choice, however, argue that unless a reform program creates real market competition among private and public schools, no amount of testing or remediation will do much to improve low-quality public schools.

Moreover, they say, choice allows competing solutions like those mentioned above to be tested in the education marketplace, with parents choosing the solution they think is best for their child. As John Merrifield, author of School Choice Wars, has pointed out, “school choice would raise productivity by exploiting educators’ comparative advantages, by paving the way for smaller schools, and by creating better matches between students and educators.”

Change in Emphasis

During his first term, Bush sought to incorporate parental choice into the NCLB bill. Although most of the choice provisions were stripped out before the bill was passed, Bush was vocal about his support for school choice. The president also pushed hard for a pilot voucher program for children in the District of Columbia, which successfully passed Congress last year as part of the 2004 appropriations bill.

Bush’s new push for testing and accountability in high schools seems to have replaced his earlier emphasis on parental choice. His selection of Margaret Spellings as the new U.S. education secretary also signaled a move away from the choice-based reforms stressed by the previous education secretary, Rod Paige. Spellings is known mainly for her support of the testing and standards components of NCLB and has not been vocal about the degree to which she supports parental choice.

William Bennett, education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, has said Spellings’ allegiance to NCLB will likely result in more emphasis on standards and accountability and less on choice-based reforms.

Disagreement over Progress

Education researchers disagree about how effective NCLB has been in improving the nation’s elementary and middle schools. Each state designs and administers its own achievement tests; hence, it is easy for states to report results showing a high number of students as proficient.

Only 30 percent of America’s fourth-graders scored at or above the “proficient” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, yet all but eight states claimed “proficiency” levels above 50 percent for fourth-graders on their own achievement tests. The width of that gap casts doubt on the validity of states’ reports about proficiency.

Bush may encounter opposition in his own party to efforts to expand NCLB. Mike Pence (R-IN), who chairs the House Study Committee, has called on Congress to reverse the expanding federal role in primary and secondary education. Pence has said many House Republicans have similar concerns.

Bush’s re-election probably ensures continuation of the District of Columbia voucher program, which the president supported during his first term. In its first year, the program enrolled more than 1,000 children in private schools selected by their parents. Next year, the program will allow 2,000 DC children to attend private schools.

David Salisbury ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.

For more information …

about President George W. Bush’s education proposals, see

More information on PISA is available online at

For information about state reporting of “proficiency,” see “Test Mismatch,” Education Week, January 6, 2005, available at

For information on the Washington, DC voucher program, go to