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NCLB Outrages

Building an Illusion of Progress

In reviewing No Child Left Behind, Congress needs to re-examine the real
"liability" to public schools. It is not the low-performing student. It
is a system overly dependent on measuring success by standardized


When a low-performing child walks into a classroom, teachers see the
child as a liability, so one unidentified Florida superintendent
lamented recently to an education researcher

The children whom the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to protect
-- the ones most at risk -- could be worse off with schools under
pressure to increase scores on standardized state tests. Schools lose
federal money when test score averages for their students fall. School
prestige is lost, and state school bonus money as well.

The law, signed by President Bush in 2001, relies heavily on the premise
that increased test scores track school improvements. But standardized
test scores measure the achievement of a student at one point in time.
They do not measure a child's progress from year to year. Some national
studies have shown that while point-in-time scores have gone up under No
Child Left Behind, individual student progress has not and in some cases
has declined.

This is a troubling sign that No Child Left Behind builds only an
illusion of progress. Creating a new matrix with focus on multiple
measures of progress should be the highest priority for Congress when
the law comes up for renewal next year.

One example of the pressure on schools to maintain the illusion of
progress concerns widely varying reports on high school graduation rates
(one of the performance standards under the act). Florida claims a
graduation rate of 71 percent. But other reports show the rate to be
between 57 percent and 61 percent. The difference depends on how you
count the students: Florida counts recipients of high-school equivalency

Other states are also scrambling to fix graduation rates. In New York,
one research report revealed that thousands of students were counseled
to leave high school (thereby avoiding testing) and study for
high-school equivalency diplomas. Those most likely to drop out are
minority students, specifically blacks and Hispanics, whose test scores
are at the "liability" level. That's the wrong way to close the
"achievement gap."

This is not to say that No Child Left Behind has had no positive
effects. There are improvements, for instance, in states aligning
classroom teaching goals with standardized tests, which can help schools
measure effectiveness if used correctly.

But by 2014 -- only eight years away -- all children will have to test
at grade level in reading, writing and mathematics. And many of the root
problems that have hurt children in low-performing schools have not been
addressed, such as lack of parental involvement, outside forces like
drug abuse and providing better teachers and teacher aides in the
classrooms. Congress recognizes the problems, but funding under the act
has fallen short by as much as $40 billion (a figure disputed by a group
of Republican congressmen).

The political aim seems to be to maintain the illusion of success, at
grave costs to a well-rounded public school system. The obsessive focus
on testing coupled with punitive policies has led to hundreds of
examples of cheating. Then, there are questions of the validity of the
test scores and data collecting. The temptation to teach to the test --
and raise scores -- can shortchange students on history, arts, geography
and other subjects not on the test.

In reviewing No Child Left Behind, Congress needs to re-examine the real
"liability" to public schools. It is not the low-performing student. It
is a system overly dependent on measuring success by standardized
testing. Fix that and match mandates with funding to make No Child Left
Behind worthy of renewal.

Achievement Gap

One of the goals of No Child Left Behind is to reduce the achievement
gap between minority students and white students.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education, in its yearly survey, tracks
disparities in the quality of education for black male students. It
compares high-school graduation rates, which are measured by comparing
grade 9 enrollments with diploma attainment three years later. It also
looks at factors such as test scores for the National Assessment of
Educational Progress, placement in advanced classes or
learning-disability programs and number of suspensions and expulsions.

The study found that in 2004-05 -- the fourth year of No Child Left
Behind -- 55 percent of black male students nationwide did not receive
high school diplomas with their cohorts. In 2001-02, that figure was 59
percent. Florida, with the highest enrollment of black males in the
country, graduated 31 percent of black male students on time in 2004-05
and 36 percent in 2001-02. New Jersey, in comparison, graduated 70
percent of black males on time.

Nationally, black male students were more likely to be classified as
mentally retarded and less likely to be classified as gifted/talented.
They were under-represented in Advanced Placement classes and received
disproportionate suspensions and expulsions. These elements limit
educational opportunities for black males but are not addressed in No
Child Left Behind.

State vs. Federal

In 2005, a task force convened by the National Conference of State
Legislatures issued recommendations for changes in the No Child Left
Behind Act. The law, passed in 2001, significantly expanded the federal
role in education. Some of the recommendations:

Form a state-federal partnership to recognize diversity among states
and to shift focus from processes and requirements to outcomes and results.

Develop a transparent and uniform process for waiver applications.

Provide greater flexibility for states in meeting the measure of

Give states the option to measure progress by tracking the same group
of students over time, called a "student growth" approach.

Allow states to use multiple measures rather than relying exclusively
on standardized tests.

Reduce the over-identification of failure and make Adequate Yearly
Progress less prescriptive, rigid and absolute.

Fix the conflict in federal laws for students with disabilities. No
Child Left Behind requires students with disabilities be tested by grade
level while the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates
students be taught according to ability.

Permit flexibility in the highly qualified provisions for teachers who
teach special education and who teach multiple subjects.

Re-evaluate the 100 percent proficiency goal for all students by 2014.

Re-examine financial consequences for not participating. (NCLB is
voluntary, but states that don't participate can lose all federal
education funds.)

Public vs. Private

One provision in No Child Left Behind would allow private takeover of
poor-performing public schools. Although not in the law, critics believe
the goal is to encourage more students to transfer to private schools.

The National Center for Education Statistics, a division within the U.S.
Department of Education, examined the differences between public and
private schools. Researchers used mean scores in the 2003 National
Assessment of Educational Progress tests for grades 4 and 8 in reading
and mathematics. They compared schools by taking into account variables
that affect achievement, such as student disability status or the
student-teacher ratio.

The result: Public schools did just as well and sometimes better than
private schools.

Based on adjusted variables, the average for public schools was
significantly higher than for private schools for grade 4 mathematics,
while the average for private schools was significantly higher than for
public schools for grade 8 reading. The average differences in adjusted
school means for grade 4 reading and grade 8 mathematics were not
significantly different.

In grade 4, Catholic and Lutheran schools were each compared to public
schools. For both reading and mathematics, the results were generally
similar to those based on all private schools. In grade 8, for Catholic
and Lutheran schools in both reading and mathematics, the results were
again similar to those based on all private schools.

— Editorial
Daytona Beach News-Journal


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