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Bush's choice: test infants or lose cash

UNITED STATES. White House hands out desperately needed reading funds-but with strings attached. Stephen Phillips reports

SCHOOLS across the US will be forced to put children as young as five through state-administered tests next term in order to win funds from President Bush's six-year $5billion (pound;3.1bn) child literacy drive.

Strings attached to White House "Reading First" grants - aimed at primaries with below-par reading scores - will mean many American infant teachers have to invigilate exams for the first time.

Reading First extends testing to five to eight-year olds, who had till now been sheltered from the standardised testing sweeping US schools. The battery of verbal, multichoice and written assessments includes baseline and high-stakes end-of-year tests, used to compare schools' performance.

The results of these also influence funding.

Some 28,000 students will sit the tests in Virginia, for instance, while a third or 366 of Texas education authorities will participate. Fewer schools are involved elsewhere - roughly 9 per cent in Louisiana and Kentucky for instance.

The scheme comes in response to an American reading crisis: less than a third of US nine-year-olds are reading at the level expected for their age, says the US education department.

To date, 39 states have won funding to beef up reading tuition for their neediest students. Some have had to overturn cherished policies that expressly outlawed or limited testing of infants.

North Carolina had to scrap a 15-year ban on testing infants to claim its $154m, said June Atkinson, state director of instructional services. "The overriding issue was to make sure we got this money to help the students," she said. Over six years the cash will go to 95 schools where more than half the pupils are reading below a proficient level.

As well as testing, critics have accused the White House of using Reading First as a vehicle to foist traditional methods on schools, such as phonics, rote learning and drilling of pronunciation.

The White House claims its favoured approach is "scientifically-based", referring to the findings of a 2000 congressional panel. But critics say it has drawn deliberately selective conclusions from that report - and is pandering to publishers who can do a lucrative trade in phonics tests and textbooks.

Leslie Poyner, assistant professor of reading at the University of New Mexico, who opposes the phonics approach and favours one based on literature or "whole language", branded Reading First "a move to privatise public education and support corporate publishing houses". "Money being channelled into test and textbook publishers could be used to ensure all children have adequate libraries," she added.

Publisher McGraw-Hill was a major beneficiary of Bush's Texas phonics-based literacy drive when he was governor there in the 1990s and schools chiefs complained that the firm's products were touted at events to launch Reading First.

North Carolina was rejected twice for the scheme, but was accepted after it followed other states in adopting phonics-based textbooks.

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