WASHINGTON - Most public school students would be tested a lot more often under legislation Congress is expected to pass soon, but there is no guarantee that those who do poorly would score much better in the future, education experts say.
Congress is poised this week to pass key elements of President Bush's education plan, potentially the most sweeping change in federal schools policy in more than three decades. Essentially, the measure would tie federal aid to schools to their performance on new mandatory tests for students in grades three through eight.
Educators say it will be hard to achieve the plan's ambitious goal of closing the academic achievement gap between poor minority students and their white suburban peers because neither the Bush administration nor Congress is willing to spend enough money to improve failing schools.
But supporters of the Bush plan say it would give parents and school administrators the information necessary to target schools that need improving and that spending decisions could then be made at the local level.
"If you are going to hold states and school districts and students accountable, that has to go hand-in-hand with increased investment to help them meet those standards and pass those tests," said David Griffith, spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, which represents school boards around the country.
The Senate is expected to finish work on the schools bill this week, while the House is scheduled to debate its version tomorrow. The House proposes to increase federal spending by $4 billion. But the Senate bill contains no similar increase, and the budget guideline passed by Congress last week would boost education spending only modestly.
During his campaign, Bush said education was his top priority, calling for an invigorated federal role that "leaves no child behind." But under pressure from conservative Republicans, who believe education policy should be left to localities and states, he proposed only a $700 million increase in fiscal 2002.
The bill's new tests alone would cost at least $1 billion a year, says the school boards group. That would leave no federal money to help meet the legislation's larger promise - to help schools raise student performance.
The legislation would require annual tests in reading and math of all students in grades three through eight and wide disclosure of school-by-school results. Over three years, schools would have to raise the scores of blacks, Hispanics and low-income students.
The big fight in the Senate is over spending. Democrats, led by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, lost 50-48 yesterday on an amendment that would have given schools $2.4 billion to reduce class size. Democrats are also pushing a $1.6 billion amendment to modernize school buildings. Republicans insist that big jumps in spending are unnecessary.
Initially, the bill's main impact on students and their parents would be more tests and more information on how schools perform on them. A sampling of students also would have to take another test, the Department of Education's National Assessment of Education Progress, or an equivalent, a control to ensure that states don't simply adopt easy tests.
"That's a lot of tests," said Gordon Ambach, director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state-level education executives. "The downside is, we'll be chewing up classroom time and student time with tests, rather than putting the time and money into instruction. ... The issue is, how much do you need?"