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NCLB Outrages

Deadline pressure influences instructors to teach to the test, but they fear the loss of meaningful educational enrichment

Ohanian Comment: I disagree with the notion that what's missing here is "enrichment"; what's missing is very basic curriculum, curriculum that informs and stimulates, and insires.

By Ruma Banerji Kumar and Halimah Abdullah

It's Nov. 11 -- 178 days before the high school Gateway exam.

Westwood High teacher Sandra Hamilton drills her sixth-period English class on the use of comparative and superlative adjectives, Gateway objective 1.1.G.

"They'll give you a story, pull out a sentence and ask you which way to write it," she tells her sophomore students. "Let's try one."

The airport is more closer to my home.

"Can you have 'more' before an -er word?" Hamilton prods.

The students stare at her blankly. Barndon White, 16, flips through notes in his folder to find a hint to the answer. It isn't there. Finally, Barndon, along with half the class, raises his hand to show "more" was incorrect.

"I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't say why," he says to no one in particular.

On the chalkboard in front of him, a poster heralds "Gateway! Gateway! Gateway!"

No Child Left Behind is about deadlines. And with deadlines comes pressure.

The U.S. Department of Education, under pressure to show the President's signature program is working, allows states increasing flexibility to meet NCLB's goals.

States, afraid to lose millions in much-needed federal aid, walk a tightrope between maintaining rigorous standards and meeting NCLB's challenge.

Schools, fearing losing their students to charter schools or state takeover, feel building pressure to teach to the test. Westwood is facing a state takeover after years of low test scores.

The teacher and 24 students in Barndon's 10th-grade English class are feeling the pressure, too.

When NCLB was launched four years ago, most of the students in Hamilton's class were just starting middle school. Today, those students are mastering only half of what they're expected to know in 10th-grade English, according to district test scores.

They're scrambling to squeeze years of English and literature into nine months. It isn't easy. Many come to this class five years behind.

Hamilton wants to expose them to Shakespeare and poetry. But she feels she doesn't have time.

She squeezed in parts of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" because the literary elements in the play might be on Gateway.

But they didn't read the play. There wasn't time. They watched the movie instead.

"I have to get to them to Gateway," Hamilton said of the state-mandated high school exam. "May 4, just let me get them there."

What's happening at Westwood, a predominantly black, South Memphis school where nearly all of the 569 students receive free and reduced lunch, isn't isolated.

It's part of the fallout educators feared when NCLB was introduced. Teachers feel pressured to prepare students for high-stakes tests at the expense of the very experiences that enrich a child's education.

Experts worry that the neediest students, the ones who form the achievement gap and are most likely to pull down schools' scores, are also most likely to get "drill and kill" teaching.

"I never imagined I would live to see a system put in place inequalities and do so by force of law," said Linda McNeil, a Rice University professor and NCLB critic. "The schools with the weakest students get more test prep and test drill and less teaching."

— Ruma Banerji Kumar and Halimah Abdullah
Commercial Appeal


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