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NCLB Outrages

While opinions vary widely on the necessity and success of No Child Left Behind, students and teachers say they are doing their best to conform

By Rob Chaney

“Schools are getting sanctioned on measures that won't change instruction. And schools can find ways to improve achievement without helping instruction.”

- Eva Baker, testing specialist at UCLA

It was so quiet in the Hellgate High School gym, you could hear the tiny scream of calculator batteries dying.

Table after table of sophomores scratched away at their MontCAS tests. For three days last week, they demonstrated their proficiency in reading and math for the annual No Child Left Behind adequate yearly progress review.

Hellgate's sophomores, and hundreds of other children in Missoula, may personally benefit from the three days away from regular classes. They and their teachers will see individual updates on their educational progress. That helps students know how they're performing in school, and helps teachers know how well their instruction is hitting home.

But beyond that, the verdict on NCLB's goal of improving American education is dubious at best. Tests vary radically from state to state, and passage standards vary from school to school. Even in Montana, it's all but impossible to say if any one school is doing better than another. Ironically, because of the penalty aspects of NCLB, we can say who's doing worse.

“I got into testing because I thought it was precise,” said Eva Baker, director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. “I've been disillusioned.”

While NCLB has forced useful attention on the performance of poor, handicapped and minority children, Baker said, it's been less successful in helping the United States improve its overall education system.

“Schools are getting sanctioned on measures that won't change instruction,” Baker said. “And schools can find ways to improve achievement without helping instruction.”

At a national conference on education research earlier this month in Los Angeles, reporters from around the country swapped tales of schools that had all but eliminated their science, history, foreign language and arts programs to concentrate on reading and math skills.

Other schools had been caught spreading their “subgroups” of disadvantaged or special education students in ways that would mask their test performance from the district as a whole.

For the most part, those problems are a long way from Montana. Unfortunately, so are the solutions.

“It's very difficult to compare Montana to New Jersey,” said Joe Lamson, communications director in the Montana Office of Public Instruction. “It doesn't make any sense to do that. The public owns our schools, and they have a right to know what's going on in our schools.”

“But to make those gross comparisons, I'm not sure it's valid for all the angst it inspires,” he added. “We're not talking about widgets here. We're talking about children. A child is not a mechanical piece that fits in a nice square hole we've made for them.”

In the Hellgate gym, 159 sophomores worked through their test booklets like college hopefuls working on SATs or ACTs. But there were a couple of crucial differences.

First, the gym was not the only place for testing. Hellgate distributed its sophomores in the library and a few classrooms as well to give students a range of study environments.

Big Sky High School experimented with putting all its sophomores in the cafetorium for testing, before deciding to spread them throughout the school. And Missoula's elementary schools have all their third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes spending multiple half-days on their own tests this week.

More importantly, scores on the MontCAS test don't qualify individual students for any credit in school or acceptance outside. Educators throughout Missoula agree one of their biggest challenges is motivating kids to exert themselves on an exercise with little personal or practical value.

“Teachers all the time are saying, ‘Come on kids, we have to do well on this test,' ” said Missoula Education Association President Dave Severson, himself a teacher at Sentinel High School. “They're trying to squeeze in more teaching on the skills the tests test. And the kids are not in love with the fact they're taking these tests. They're not tied in with normal kinds of work they do. I'm afraid at a certain point, they're going to give up trying on things and say, ‘I'm going to color in the bubbles.' ”

For Hellgate Principal Jane Bennett, turning apathy into interest has become a matter of school pride.

“I think the school has rallied around the tests,” Bennett said as one sophomore girl came to see if there were any spare batteries for her dead calculator. “It's been unifying for us. I think our students are proud of the fact our school does well.”

In February, the whole high school used an assembly period to work on a sample writing exercise like the sophomores face on the MontCAS. Bennett also passed out memos for teachers to read to students noting the consequences of poor performance and why they had an expectation to do well.

And then there's the classic incentive: beating last year's sophomore score.

“It's easy to compare ourselves to other schools, and it's fun to compare to last year,” Bennett said. “But it's important for each kid to compare themselves to themselves. How are they doing since eighth grade? How are they progressing?”

It's that measurement of growth that is the inherent goal of testing. Yet in Montana and elsewhere, measuring actual growth is more difficult than one might expect. For example, while Missoula schools can track individual student performance on each test question, the Missoula County Public Schools district office can't. Just last week, MCPS trustees awarded a contract to buy $231,313 in new software to manage student records districtwide.

The state is even further out of the loop. One major component of the No Child Left Behind review is graduation rates. But OPI has no way of tracking students from town to town.

“If a student drops out in Helena and enrolls in Great Falls, we don't know that,” said OPI Assistant Superintendent Nancy Coopersmith. That plays hob with graduation formulas that generate enough controversy at the local level.

And it exposes another quirk of NCLB regulation. Although most Montana schools are meeting their Adequate Yearly Progress goals, the state is in its second year of “identified for improvement” status.

The problem is similar to mercury bioaccumulating in the food chain. Just as game fish reach dangerous levels of mercury contamination by eating lots of prey containing small bits of mercury, the state absorbs responsibility for student test failures that don't directly affect the schools they attend.

Statistical problems like that prompted OPI to request a Montana-specific progress measurement instead of the federally proposed method. Coopersmith said NCLB regulations are designed to measure test performance in districts with hundreds or thousands of children.

Lolo Elementary School's fourth grade had a 2005 enrollment of about 60 children. If just six of those students have a bad test day, that's the same impact as 100 underperforming kids in a 1,000-student class in Chicago.

“We wanted to use something other than numbers, test scores and graduation,” Coopersmith said. “We thought that would produce more valid and reliable results on whether kids were making progress on their learning. We were encouraged; we were given some latitude, but we're only allowed to do it for a certain number of schools.”

That leaves Montana in the same basket as 48 of the 50 states that have submitted updated evaluation plans for the current NCLB review. Last year, almost all Missoula-area schools made AYP under the proposed Office of Public Instruction standard. It's expected they would also make it under the more common federal requirement, but with slightly different results. In any case, the penalties are uncertain.

No Child Left Behind follows the formula of many federal mandates: Accept these regulations or forfeit federal dollars.

In Montana, that amounts to $127 million, or about 12 percent of the state's annual public school spending of $1.1 billion. About $41 million of that federal allocation goes to Title 1 programs that help children from low-income families. Another $42 million goes directly to school districts as payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT money - income from federal land that otherwise might be part of the local property tax stream. Another big chunk is about $13 million a year for professional development grants to educators.

There's no move in Montana to reject NCLB at this time, as Utah and New Hampshire have proposed doing. However, accepting the federal regulations also means exposure to NCLB's punishments for inadequate progress. Failure to make AYP takes three forms.

If a school misses the mark two years in a row, as C.S. Porter Middle School did in 2004, its parents are notified of their right to transfer to another school in the district. Given that Missoula (and most Montana) schools already have open enrollment policies, that sanction hits more pride than practicality.

The next level of punishment is making schools use some of their federal funds to provide tutoring or other supplemental education to families of struggling kids. Again, with Montana's rural existence and limited alternative education opportunities, there isn't much practical effect.

The third level of sanction is for the state to take over management of a failing school or district. Montana's constitution actually prevents that, by putting all school districts in the control of locally elected boards of trustees.

“There are states that have state-required curriculum and textbooks - we have neither of those,” Coopersmith said. “When we get those Fs on national state standards reports, they say (Montana state standards) are not specific enough. We say they're frameworks for what should be happening at the local level. To be accredited, you must implement those standards, but how you do that is left to the local level.”

At Hellgate High, most of the Title 1 sophomores were taking their tests in Marilyn Pierce's reading classroom. Pierce has taught economically disadvantaged kids since 1978. In all that time, she said, schools have tried to develop tests that fairly measure struggling, average and gifted kids at once.

“Every year, I go with the Measured Progress people (who produce the framework of MontCAS) to help write the tests,” Pierce said. “An AP (advanced placement) teacher sees it different than I see it. I try to bounce out the trick questions.”

Montana educators have also worked to ensure each year of the MontCAS testing connects to the subjects children are learning that year. As UCLA's Baker warns, test scores don't equal learning. They only present a snapshot of what the test-takers know at the moment.

“When schools organize themselves only to raise test scores, that's not a good thing,” Baker said. “Because then, if a kid still doesn't get it, what do we do? Say it slower and louder?”

The overall goal of No Child Left Behind is to bring every child that receives public education to an agreed-upon level of proficiency, so they can be a functioning member of American society. While the nation is a long way from agreeing on where that proficiency line is, in Montana at least, it's given educators a goal.

“The thing about education is, it's the only thing that everybody has gone through, so everybody has an opinion about how it should be done right,” Pierce said. “In the ‘Leave It To Beaver' days, kids who couldn't do it dropped out in the eighth grade and went to work for the railroad. We don't do that now.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com

— Rob Chaney


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