No Child Left Behind yields progress, set backs
Ohanian Comment: The reporter notes that "Next to the Iraq war, No Child Left Behind may be President Bush's most controversial and far-reaching initiative." In its way NCLB is the educational equivalent of Iraq: squandering lives and money, leaving devastation in its wake. Like the US Iraq policy, NCLB looks at things in white and black, segregating and assaulting many people as "the other." I don't want in any way to trivialize the devastation in Iraq. What we have done there, and continue to do, is beyond comprehension. I only want to suggest that NCLB is a domestic war. In the name of "high standards," a generation of schoolchildren are being starved of any notion of what it means to go to a loving, supportive school. I fear they will never recover from it.
By Joe Smydo
No Child Left Behind, rolled out in 2002, has changed the face of the American education system. States have restructured curriculums, increased training requirements for teachers and implemented standardized tests, all to boost reading and math performance as required by the law.
Studies have offered conflicting assessments of the law's effectiveness, with some portraying recent years' test scores as stagnant or so mixed as to defy generalization. Critics claim that the focus on reading and math has taken time away from other important subjects and that current tests are a high-pressure but incomplete measure of student achievement.
Next to the Iraq war, No Child Left Behind may be President Bush's most controversial and far-reaching initiative. With Congress set to consider reauthorization next year, supporters and critics alike are lining up to propose changes.
"Supporters of the practice of high-stakes testing believe that the quality of American education can be vastly improved by introducing a system of rewards and sanctions for students' academic performance," researchers at Arizona State University's Education Policy Studies Laboratory said in a September 2005 report condemning the practice.
The researchers called for a moratorium on such testing, saying it encourages students to drop out of school and puts the greatest pressure on minority students in low-performing schools.
The national goal is 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014, with districts facing intermediate proficiency targets along the way. With failure come consequences, ranging from letting students transfer from low-performing schools to elimination of locally elected school boards.
School districts have aligned instruction more closely to what's being taught on state tests. They put in place standardized curriculums, increased instruction in reading and math and reorganized courses to make sure students see material in class before they see it on state tests.
The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that works to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps, said that standards, testing requirements, accountability and teacher-quality requirements all are important.
"I think the first thing to talk about, and probably the most important thing, is that (the law) has brought into focus the gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from their peers like never before," said Daria Hall, senior policy analyst for the trust.
"We now know how well all groups of students in a particular school district or state are achieving, and we have now said it is the responsibility of every school, every district and every state to serve all students well. This is a big change from the past, when we looked only at school averages, which led us to say schools were doing fine when some groups of students were doing very well and others were doing very poorly."
Unfortunately, she said, the federal government has been slow to implement a provision of the law requiring that poor and minority students have no more than a proportional share of less-experienced, less-qualified teachers.
In releasing a study on No Child Left Behind in March, the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy said the law's strengths included high expectations for all students and use of test data to fine-tune teaching.
But it noted those benefits have come at some cost.
To understand the impact of the law, the center surveyed education officials in every state, surveyed 299 school districts and performed case studies on 42 schools in 38 districts. The center said 71 percent of districts reduced time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and math.
Before not all states had standardized tests or tested students as frequently as they do now, said Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators. "What nobody had was a score-keeping system," he said.
No Child Left Behind keeps score with the designation known as "adequate yearly progress."
If schools and districts meet attendance, test-participation and test-score goals, they breathe a sigh of relief. If schools and districts miss the targets, they move a step closer to sanctions.
Some critics say the law is particularly hard on urban school districts, which have many schools and sub-groups of students to move to proficiency, and small rural school districts, where one or two low-performing children can affect compliance.
The Center on Education Policy estimated that 16 percent of all schools and 24 percent of all school districts did not make the goals for 2004-05. It said about 3 percent of schools were experiencing the law's most radical sanctions.
The center said 78 percent of districts reported an increase in achievement from 2004 to 2005, that 35 states reported gains in reading during that period and that 36 states reported gains in math. It said most states and districts reported that achievement gaps between races and economic groups had narrowed or remained the same.
"Our case studies revealed a more mixed and complex view of achievement than our surveys, with trends fluctuating by year or varying by grade to the point that it is difficult to say whether achievement is rising or falling," the center said. Similarly, case studies showed that achievement gap trends were less clear-cut than schools and districts reported in surveys.
Adding to the uncertainty, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, based on tests given to a representative sampling of students, showed flat reading scores and little gain in math from 2002 to 2005. The Education Trust and U.S. Education Department said longer-term assessments give a clearer picture of the law's impact.
"More progress was made by 9-year-olds in reading in the last five years than in the previous 28 years combined," the department says on its Web site at www.ed.gov. "Achievement gaps in reading and math between white and African American 9-year-olds and between white and Hispanic 9-year-olds are at an all-time low."
Among other changes, the Center on Education Policy recommended that the federal government provide more money to implement the law and send the message that subjects besides reading and math remain important.
Others have suggested that the country move to a longitudinal analysis of test scores; that is, measure the proficiency of a class from one year to the next and drop the traditional approach of comparing one year's third-grade scores against third-grade scores of the preceding year. Proponents say the change would yield a better picture of whether more students are becoming proficient.
Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo(at)post-gazette.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES