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NCLB Outrages

Some say federal mandates impractical in real world

"I think one dad said it best: ‘Asking my student to perform on a fourth-grade level is like asking a quadriplegic to be competitive on a 100-meter run,'" said Bruce Dunkle, principal of Whittier Elementary.

So far this spring, East Middle School eighth-grader Ryan Mullowney and his 300-plus classmates have endured at least 24 hours worth of standardized testing — and one of them can determine the future of the school.

"I want to do good to help the school," Mullowney said of the high-stakes Criterion Reference test, which is mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

He and fellow eighth-graders James Richards and Hannah Rabson pronounced the battery of tests as hard, easy and boring. But they worry that doing poorly means the school could be negatively impacted.

"It (the test) seems like it does the opposite of what it should do. You should get a lot more funding (if you won't do well)," Mullowney said.

The test's importance is noticed at East, which has struggled to meet Average Yearly Progress, the government's measuring stick of how well a school is doing. Students' pictures are plastered on a cafeteria wall, noting their diligence in preparing for the test. Teachers and staff have drilled preparation for months and the school has concentrated on reinforcing the necessary math and reading skills.

But educators, while believing in the accountability portion of the No Child Left Behind Act, say the law is unfair, inflexible and not realistic for various practical, real-world reasons. The act demands that every child perform at grade level and schools have a 100 percent graduation rate by 2014, no matter the school's challenges or improvements.

"I have never been afraid to be accountable or responsible. But I want to be accountable for what we do. We don't control every aspect of a child's life," said Butte Superintendent Chuck Uggetti.

For example, No Child Left Behind wants all pupils, even special education students who may have modified curriculum all year, to perform at the same level as their peers. About 30 students who do not pass the test — known as "sub-groups" and may be special education, impoverished or a minority — can sink an entire school, even though the majority passed the test.

"I think one dad said it best: ‘Asking my student to perform on a fourth-grade level is like asking a quadriplegic to be competitive on a 100-meter run,'" said Bruce Dunkle, principal of Whittier Elementary.

The high-stakes No Child Left Behind Act comes with a big stick, federal funding, and no carrots, such as money to train teachers and test-takers. It also lays out a process where the federal government can take over a school — firing teachers, principals and staff — deemed as failing over a period of years.

The law also says parents can move their children to another school if their home school fails Average Yearly Progress for years; and the school must also provide tutors if a child is lagging. Those requirements came with no additional funding.

Some educators believe that the No Child Left Behind test, which will spread to other grade levels and subjects, sets the bar so high that eventually all schools can fail if changes are not made.

Others see darker overtones, believing the federal government wants to exert control over schools that have long been the responsibility of local communities, thereby privatizing education.

Glen Johnson, principal of Butte High, fears that No Child Left Behind, if unchanged, could eventually produce a system in which public education is only for the underprivileged and students who can't afford a private schooling.

"It's a scary picture," he said.

Educators also fret that students are becoming test-weary as the unrelenting drive to measure progress overtakes creativity, instruction and variety that schools cherish.

"We are burning them out on testing. The kids get tired; the staff is tired of trying to fit this in. They are overwhelmed," said Mary Pahut, head of the school board. "And I don't believe that basing overall performance on a standardized test is a true indication of our schools." This year, East Middle School conducted 40 days of test preparation, said English teacher Theo Davis. And although Davis said the skills are important, the time takes away from important learning experiences.

Colleague Dennis Samples, a math teacher, had to deviate from instruction to accommodate the test. "We lost 21/2 weeks," he said.

Teachers and staff at East feel the intent of No Child Left Behind is worthy: Demanding accountability and ensuring that standards are met are important, even if it means aligning curriculum and instruction to the test. "Teaching to the test" doesn't have a bad connotation, they say, since students need to know the material anyway.

The problem is No Child Left Behind allows no flexibility or additional measures of a school's progress.

It is also demoralizing for a school to appear on the list for not making Average Yearly Progress. People don't realize that reaching it is made difficult by diverse student populations and obstacles, such as poverty or learning disabilities. And the majority of students may be doing well, but their achievements are lost because a subgroup failed, automatically putting the school on Average Yearly Progress notice.

Most also believe that No Child Left Behind is peppered with unrealistic expectations and pits schools against each other — at the local and state levels.

The intent is not to compare schools to schools, said Superintendent Uggetti, "but that's the reality. The idea is to compare apples to apples, but in some cases we're comparing apples to oranges. No matter what I do or how much I do, there are kids from great families with a lot of opportunities and other students that don't have those opportunities." East Middle School is already beefing up areas, including corrective reading programs that are a direct response to not meeting Average Yearly Progress, said Larry Driscoll, assistant principal.

He worries, however, that the emphasis on testing well and the required work means something else is being short-changed.

"We are doing more with less," he said. "And it is taking away from instruction." Still, so much is riding on Average Yearly Progress that it makes Butte High shudder. The school made it last year — just barely — after failing previously.

"Last year we were up against it," said Johnson. "There is a lot riding on it." To illustrate the high stakes, Johnson said the school has a student population of 1,500 students, and 340 of them take the criterion reference test as sophomores. If a subgroup of that 340 students, for example 30 minority or special education students, fails the test, the whole school fails Average Yearly Progress.

The school even supplied breakfast on test mornings, believing every little bit helps.

"We tried to hit all elements covered on the test real early in the year," added Jim Hope, assistant principal.

Hope serves with teachers and staff members on a committee formulating a five-year plan for the school — also a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act. While not arguing the need for such a plan, Hope and Johnson point out that the untold hours required to write such a plan take away from student interaction.

The administrators are concerned that No Child Left Behind does not acknowledge students who have other interests besides higher math or honors classes. Not all students are college material, preferring a vocational route or artistic avenues. Those interests keep students in school, but with the emphasis on testing, the educators worry that fine and practical arts will be severely limited.

Johnson and Hope also agree that No Child Left Behind does not consider a student's out-of-school challenges. They may not have regular meals or a place to sleep, making showing up for a class a triumph.

"We only see them six hours a day," said Hope. "There's a tremendous amount of living that goes on outside these walls. We're just happy to see them here." Reporter Leslie McCartney may be reached via e-mail at leslie.mccartney@lee.net.

— Leslie McCartney
The Montana Standard


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