I just finished reading an excellent book -- $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer. This eye-opening book provides a picture of the lives of those Americans living on "almost nothing" -- and records the tremendous increase in their numbers since welfare "reform" in 1996. The descriptions of the lives of the children impacted by poverty are particularly gripping. It's impossible to read this book and think that all the problems these children have will be solved if we simply "raise the bar" with standardized tests and increase the stakes associated with test results. How can "raising the bar" help children living in shelters, or who go hungry most nights, or who are abused, or who live in continual chaos? There is a wonderful example in the book of a teacher (a dedicated TFA intern!) who makes a difference in the lives of one student and her family -- not by demanding more, "raising the bar," imposing more "rigorous" requirements on homework, but by helping the family with medical and dental care, clothing, and the like.
Welfare "reform" in 1996 appears to have succeeded in providing more assistance to low-income working people through the means of the "earned income tax credit" but ended up missing the other half of the plan -- providing access to jobs for people who need them. (It could also be that the EITC actually functions as a subsidy for employers, allowing the continuation of very low wages rather than requiring a livable minimum wage -- the authors point out that there is no state in the country in which a person working full-time at the minimum wage can afford a market rate two-bedroom apartment.)
If we truly want to make a difference for this generation of children, and as a corollary improve the United States' performance on international standardized tests (whether or not that's an important goal, it's clear that many think it is), we need to change their life circumstances and make it possible for them to focus on learning. In comparing the U.S. with other developed countries, the worst statistic is that according to the OECD the U.S. poverty rate is the "highest in the developed world." We should be determined to change that, and invest in doing so. Rather than arguing about such matters as whether 2% of instructional time is the "right" amount of testing, or how to measure that, our representatives could be spending their time working on improving the life situations of children living in poverty.