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NCLB Outrages

School System Improves Under Our Bright Light

Gerald Bracey Comment: Someone should pin Margaret Spellings down on what NCLB requires of states. In a speech last spring she said it demands that all children read at grade level. Yesterday, in a WSJ letter to the editor, she she spoke about "the 'bright line' goals of the law, including annual testing, disaggregated test score data and full grade level proficiency in reading and math by 2013-2014."

Does anyone on the Assessment Reform Network listserv know what she means by "full grade level proficiency?" Does she even know?

"Grade level," as usually defined, leaves 50% of all children, by definition, below grade level. To the best of my knowledge, no team anywhere has assembled a list of developmental competencies or skills and said "all children should be able to do this by 5th grade." And likely for the same reason that no team has said "all children should be at least X inches tall by 5th grade." It only makes sense to report physical growth data normatively. My grandson was in the 90th percentile for height, my daughter informed me when she brought him home some years ago. She might have fretted had he been in the 10th, but the normative report acknowledged something: human beings vary greatly.

Why should it make any more sense to report non-normative data for cognitive development than physical? Starting in the 1960's some psychometricians tried to construct criterion-referenced tests--and failed (what pass for CRT's today are not).

Nevertheless, grade level is a popular phrase with Spellings, however ambiguously she uses it. In a speech at Avon Avenue Elementary School in Newark a few weeks ago, she wanted kids "proficient and on grade level by the 2013-2014 school year." So the two are separable, not interchangeable? In 2004, on The News Hour, she told Ray Suarez the schools were striving "so we can get kids on grade level by 2013-2014 as the law requires." And in a 2005 Washington Post op-ed she wrote that NCLB "asks one thing: that our public schools teach students to read and do math at grade level."

A Google search of "grade level" and "Margaret Spellings" results in 66,200 items, about 66,100 more occurrences than in the law itself and most of the references in the legislation are to the grade level placement of either teachers or students. "Grade level" as a metric comes into play only in the discussion of Reading First.

The law, of course, talks about "the state's proficient level of student academic achievement" as in "the timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001-2002 school year, all students in each group described in subparagraph (C)(v) will meet or exceed the state's proficient level of achievement."

It could be just sloppy speech, but it seems to me there could be something quite nefarious in the Secretary's confusing grade level with proficient. Some people are already uncomfortable with 50 definitions of proficient, but proficient is a fairly vague term compared to grade level. Would people accept 50 definitions of, say, "fourth grade level?" Might be a bit hard to swallow today (when local control was meaningful, nobody cared much).

Ridiculing the idea of 50 different definitions of fourth grade level might well smooth the way for national standards, national tests, national definitions. And, of course, NAEP lies conveniently in the cupboard with its definitions and determinations of basic, proficient (the magic word), and advanced (and its ridiculously high achievement levels as well). When I have raised this possibility at conferences, I have generally received a response of "no way." The states would never put up with that kind of federal intrusion. But recall that for the first 18 years of NAEP's existence, it was against the law to even collect state-level data. The law prevented the reporting of anything smaller than a region, a singularly useless unit of analysis. Now, 18 years after the law was changed, NAEP routinely collects and reports state-level results. And NCLB requires all states to participate. How convenient.

by Margaret Spellings

Few voices have been stronger in support of education reform over the years than your editorial page. Which is why it troubles me to have to respond to your March 24 editorial Spellings Test,

Instead of challenging reform's opponents, you found fault with its best friend. The Bush administration led the charge to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, the strongest educational accountability measure ever instituted. The Department of Education has challenged states that have tried to water down or wriggle out of its provisions. And we have been immovable on the "bright line" goals of the law, including annual testing, disaggregated test score data and full grade level proficiency in reading and math by 2013-14.

Four years ago, we fought hard to ensure that public school choice and tutoring services were part of NCLB. They are important accountability tools. We have urged school districts to partner with community and faith-based organizations and to set aside adequate funds for transportation. We insist school districts comply with both its letter and spirit; for example, by informing parents in a timely manner and in plain language. Sticking a letter in a kid's backpack is just not good enough.

We are holding up successful districts, such as Miami-Dade County in Florida and Desert Sands Unified in California, as role models. And those dragging their feet have been warned of consequences. Henry Johnson, who heads my Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, is taking a very close look at how well states are complying with the law. We will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement actions.

Of course, we are not satisfied with current student participation rates. To spur improvement, we established pilot programs in several states prior to the 2005-06 school year. Early returns are promising. In Newport News, Va., for example, preliminary data show that 62% of students eligible for free tutoring signed up, aided by a door-to-door campaign to notify low-income parents. This is nearly four times the national average.

We welcome everyone's effort to use the latest data in support of closing the achievement gap. The bottom line is that none of this activity would be happening without the No Child Left Behind Act. It has done more than raise test scores and narrow the achievement gap. It has shone a bright light on the entire public education system, so that parents are no longer kept in the dark.

— Margaret Spellings, U. S. Secretary of Education
Wall Street Journal


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