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The federal government is about to present Vermont and the other 49 states with a holiday gift. But it’s got a lot of strings attached.

The gift is mandated federal testing in Grades 3 through 8 in every school in the country. The strings are the cost.

Mandated federal testing was an important part of George Bush’s presidential campaign. Since taking office, he’s leaned hard on Congress to make his vision law. Congress is close to granting his wish. Approval is expected soon.

An important detail is who will pay for the testing. During campaigns last year, Republicans lamented unfunded federal mandates. So, with the testing plan, they realized that they must provide funds along with the mandate.

But the money that Congress will provide is unlikely to cover the cost of the tests. Vermont, for example, would get about $5 million a year. But Vermont officials estimate that the testing program could cost up to $10 million. That’s a $5-million gap. Who would pick up the tab? Probably local communities. If they didn’t, the state could lose $27 million in other federal funds.

Cost is just one of many issues raised by the federal testing plan. I’m on a committee studying the state’s comprehensive assessment system. This system has been around for nearly 10 years. It’s become an important piece of every school’s yearly action plan review. Opening up the system to accommodate the new federal testing mandates will have a major impact.

There are a number of ways to accommodate the mandates. The exact nature of the options will depend on the final shape of the legislation and regulations. States will likely have some leeway in which tests they use. States with a centralized yearly assessment system — such as George Bush’s home state of Texas — may be able to meet the new mandates with the tests that they’re already using. Any money they get from Washington will be a windfall. But for states such as Vermont, which has uniform state assessments in only three grades, it will be a challenge to meet the federal mandates.

Expanding the Vermont system so that it covers all grades would be the most useful option for Vermont schools. The current tests are based on Vermont’s learning standards, and schools have aligned their curricula to these standards. Using different tests would mean teachers must cover the standards set for those tests. And tests do vary greatly. Some stress skills, such as analyzing a literary passage. Others stress content, such as knowing when Shakespeare was born.

Vermont is fortunate to have what I feel are solid, reliable tests. They truly do assess what we want kids to know and be able to do. Tests given for the sake of giving tests, especially if they don’t reflect a school’s learning standards, are a waste of time. They’re unfair to kids and to teachers. They don’t provide the information we need to improve school programs.

Only if schools don’t have rigorous tests in place, and only if these tests aren’t aligned to learning standards, might a federally mandated testing program make sense. That’s not the case in Vermont.

And of course the $5 million tab that might be passed to local communities doesn’t reflect the cost of the time spent in testing. The federal government isn’t interested in giving local communities the money to add a day to school calendars for testing. So, testing will have to be shoe-horned into the existing school year. That’s a big expense. On average, it costs $37 a day to teach a child in a Vermont classroom. If your school has 250 children, one day of class time lost to testing costs your community $9,000. Statewide, the cost is about $1.7 million.

It’s one thing if you want the tests and the information that they provide. But if you’re testing just because the federal government tells you to, this is money down the drain.

Ironic — the party and the candidate that promised to get the federal government off our backs is about to expand its role in schools. And a good chunk of this expanded role will be on our nickel.

This is Allen Gilbert

–Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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