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NCLB Outrages

Standards Left Behind

Ohanian Comment: I have posted Perlstein's essay elsewhere on this site. What is interesting here is the distinction this blogger makes between standards and Adequate Yearly Progress. He is, of course, right. And this is why I'm against both rigid standards and Adequate Yearly Progress systems. Both posit learning as a neat and tidy linear affair. Both are wrong.

Rick Perlstein is, to put it mildly, not optimistic about the next four years.

Read the entire essay, "Eve of Destruction" -- read it over and over and over again, my friend, if you don't believe we're on that eve. But I want to focus here on Perlstein's comments on No Child Left Behind:


You've heard of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the one that produces those anguished news reports every four years about all the countries American schoolchildren lag behind in basic skills. But according to the TIMSS, if Minnesota were a country, it would have the second-best science scores and the seventh best in math. By No Child Left Behind's statutorily required benchmarks of "Adequate Yearly Progress," however, only 42 percent of Minnesota fourth-graders were proficient in math. And NCLB's test targets increase every year. So by one estimate, in 2014, some 80 percent of the schools in Minnesota's world-class education system will be rated "failures."

The benchmarks are insane, you see. ...

Which serves the administration's purpose admirably. Failure, glorious failure: In Chicago, the city must now offer 200,000 students the chance to move out of "failed" schools -- but there are only 500 spaces in which to place them elsewhere. So now the public school system must be destroyed.

The significance of that "Adequate Yearly Progress" standard was ignored by every school in the nation. They failed to understand how NCLB changed the rules for education. They swallowed the ruse that this is about educational "standards."

It's not about standards. Standards, in education, would mean deciding that all students in a particular grade must learn X, Y and Z in order to move on to the next grade. Students could be required to take a test each year to prove they had mastered those standards.

But that's not what NCLB requires. It requires that a school's scores on such annual tests must improve every year. Failure to improve is regarded simply as failure. The only standard that counts, in other words, is the previous year's scores.

To illustrate how insane this really is, consider Ted Williams' triple-crown season in 1942 -- one of the most remarkable seasons ever put together at the plate in baseball history. He batted .356 with 137 RBIs and 36 home runs (and that was when 36 home runs still meant something).

According to the standards of NCLB, that season was a failure. Teddy Ballgame failed to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress. His batting average and home run totals failed to improve upon the previous year's (.406, 37). Failure, glorious failure.

A more successful hitter that year would be someone like Washington Senators backup Mike "Shotgun" Chartak, whose 10 homers and .237 average in 1942 were significant improvements over his previous big league marks. Unlike Williams, Chartak demonstrated Adequate Yearly Progress.

I've never understood why some shrewd superintendent didn't attempt to game the system in the first year of NCLB. The first year of testing counted only to establish a benchmark for each school against which that school's future yearly progress could be measured. Schools thus had an incentive to score poorly -- as poorly as possible -- during the first year of testing. The lower the initial scores, the easier it would be to demonstrate future progress.

A rational approach therefore would have been to instruct students, during that benchmark round of testing, to answer everything wrong. If you're not sure what the wrong answer is, leave it blank.

This would have ensured that the school would do better in ensuing years, demonstrating the yearly progress that NCLB counts as success. It would also have provided students with a valuable lesson about the meaning of education in America. It's not about mastering the three Rs, and it's certainly not about something loftier like becoming more fully human or the ideal of paideia or other such nonsense. It's about figuring out how the Powers That Be keep score and learning to do what you must to keep them happy.

— Fred Clark
Slacktivist blog


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