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Colorful Metaphors: Leaving kids behind with late testing

Ohanian Comment: Toward the end of the piece, the writer reflects on what the $44 million spent on Harcourt testing could buy for Illinois kids.

By Julie Ratliff

I've been thinking a lot this week about the "No Child Left Behind" policy/program from our government. How could I not think of it when we were told last week that Harcourt, who has the contract to deliver Illinois' version of the test, the ISAT, is "behind" schedule on delivering the needed tests?

They are "behind" on an approximately $44 million contract. Well, to be honest, it's $44 million over a four-year period, so this year, they're just behind on approximately $11 million. That got me to thinking.

I don't really have anything against the CONCEPT of "no child left behind." Who does? I mean, we Americans have always prided ourselves on educating more people to a higher level than just about any other country in the world. And, who wouldn't want to make sure that our next generation gets the finest education we can provide for them all?

After all, it's a tradition that goes WAY back. The Pilgrims brought the idea of education with them when they arrived on the Mayflower. Whatever else we might think about the Puritans, even the most radical of us should give them credit for the fact they believed EVERYONE should be educated well enough to read the Bible.

It was a radical idea for its time, because included in that everyone were women, servants and slaves. Later, that inherent belief led to a number of school systems and experiments with education over the centuries, but the core concept remained-we wanted to make sure that our children were educated.

Let's move up a bit, though, to the actual "No Child Left Behind" concept--which in theory is good. I just don't believe the practice is what it's cut out to be.

You will never convince me that mass testing guarantees a good education. Good schools, good teachers and good parents guarantee a good education-standardized tests do not.

Let me tell you of my own experience with testing.

I went to college at a little regional school in Missouri. The school had a theory called "Value Added," that it was promoting at the time. It was the brainchild of the college president who said that the school could "prove" it was adding value to its students' lives.

How were they "proving" it?

We took tests. We entered with an ACT score, then took a second ACT test in our sophomore year and a senior test as well. Based on the scores from those tests, the school argued that it could prove we were having "value" added to our lives.

It was, for the most part, a great PR campaign. There was no way to directly prove that the school had added more than the three years of life between the junior year of high school (when most took the ACT) and the sophomore year of college spent somewhere else would have. For all I know, three years spent playing video games in a basement might have helped as much with increasing the test scores. (I saw a report recently about a man making $400,000 in one year playing video games, so . . . who knows?)

But, overall, test scores went up-mostly one or two points. If you had a substantial "percentage gain," you got invited to a banquet and got a certificate.

Anyway, while I don't know that my first two years of college added more to my life than two years of life elsewhere, what I do know is that my school parlayed those statistics into a great PR campaign that generated a lot of funding for the school.

We got new computer systems, new buildings and lots of new faculty. Class size dropped dramatically and more scholarship money was available. And, we started getting written up in magazine "Top 10 Best Buys in College" lists for the quality of our education.

The TESTS didn't provide us that value, but better funding and better resources available because of that PR, did.

So, how's the experience of one small college relate to the whole state of Illinois ISAT testing?

Illinois is going to spend $44 million on ISAT testing over the next 4 years-$11 million of it at a time.

Surely we could be spending the money on something more concrete and constructive for improving our students' education. Eleven million a year could build Creal Springs a new school so the students don't have to eat in the hallway or it could build Carterville its needed new high school.

It could provide 5,500 REALLY nice new computers, complete with software and service, tens of thousands of new books and school supplies or provide the money to hire between 300 and 500 new teachers to drop class sizes from 30 to 35 down to 15 to 20.

And, like at my college, don't you think smaller classes, better supplies and improved technology might do more for making sure no child was left behind than stacks of tests that cannot even be guaranteed to be delivered on time?

— Julie Ratliff
Marion Daily Republican
2006-03-17


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