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NCLB Outrages

No Child' Leaves Too Much Behind

Comments from Annie: I am nodding my head as I read the beginning of this essay until I begin to see the flaws. I can agree with this author to a certain point. Certainly “The No Child Left Behind law focuses on a very narrow set of outcomes…” and the curriculum has narrowed with the impossible challenges of AYP. But I can not feel completely satisfied that he understands the deeper reaching and inherent faulty basis of the act or the broad consequences in our schools as it is imposed upon our school system.

This part stopped my nodding: “When each state is allowed to set its own standard, measuring compliance with the No Child Left Behind law and comparing performance between states becomes virtually impossible. In fact, some states changed their proficiency levels early on so that more students appear proficient, making it easier for the states to meet No Child Left Behind performance targets.”

I hope I am finishing his thought incorrectly when I wonder whether he is simply getting ready to call for a national, standardized test; but I have this creepy suspicion…And why doesn’t he complete his thought?

Maybe he does…He goes on to write that: “It seems reasonable that if we continue the policy of holding schools accountable, we need to broaden the meaning of school quality to include more of the things that really matter to students, parents and society.”

“Holding schools accountable” is a phrase that catches in my soul almost as immediately and urgently as any of the other rhetoric associated with NCLB. My first reaction to phrases like this is to picture the meaning quite literally. In this case, I conjure up a personified building opening its spreadsheet to show the Ivory Snow lady. How can a building be responsible for anything, let alone children? But, zoom into the ledger with me for a moment; the “accounts” are lists of children. I see their faces. Can the school be held “accountable” for their needs? Damn. No, it is, of course the teachers. And in the structure of our schools, beyond the teachers, it is the building administrators. And above them all, it is the superintendent, and the cast or cabinet of mightier administrators…So, who is really accountable? Not the school!

Here is my point: This is not about numbers and accountability at all, if you want to know the truth. It is rather about establishing a realistic, equitable economic investment by our federal government and by our state and community governments to support a system of public schools that engage the students and their teachers in a process of learning captivating their hearts and souls, their minds and bodies, giving them the tools and the freedoms they need to ask questions, giving them experiences, introducing basic and advanced, new methods of learning, and supplying them with resources, all depending and banking on a variety of individual needs. It is about teaching—long a profession defined by the talent, creativity, the tenacity and good intentions of people who enjoy teaching and life-long learning.

In economically impoverished districts or schools, the percentages of students with special needs are higher. In those areas, teachers should be given the flexibility, the resources, the tools and the support they need to accomplish addressing the range of needs of their students and the resources to replenish their own souls; this is exceptionally complicated work and it is draining. Obviously, much more is needed to address the needs of these children than can be managed at school alone. Services could overlap but needs here go far beyond a test or measurement.

When we stop treating children as if they were shipments of cargo, and when we give the teachers back their volition and credibility, and when we return our classrooms to the business of helping children to learn and grow, and when we stop censoring the joy out of learning with relentless testing, our schools will be buildings again; not factories. But they could be buildings that children and teachers fill with the noise of promise and hope instead of the NCLB-induced fear and oppression.

The author is correct to mention that children also can learn from being exposed to Music, Art, Phys. Ed. Children can find a world of opportunity if they learn to read, and write, can sing, learn to live healthily. Do we need to establish an account to let that happen? Do we really need to test them to make them flourish?

In our school, our children still take music as a class. That means it is graded. That means they have finals. That means their teachers are so damned sick of the paperwork and regimentation of what was once a flexible, creative, wonderful experience for children and teachers alike that the teachers, the children, even the music suffers and now the classroom resembles the same deflated, depressing, colorless world of every other regimented classroom.

And Art; art is another heart-breaking example of what standardization and accountability to do life in school. The teachers are bound by restrictions, by accountability, by tests. The students are stunted by the approach when once they were stimulated by possibilities.

And Science, and Foreign language, English, and History, all standardized, all “accountable,” all tested, all scripted…all dead, or dying if we don’t stop this horrible oppression.

I caution this author to think in terms of the real diversity of needs and conditions that enter these buildings in the shape of our children. Is it helpful or responsible to sit from afar in judgment of whether each child or their school has entered “acceptable” measurement categories for being college-bound? Is that it?

My eldest child entered college this year. College is not for everyone; nor does it pretend to be, at least it didn’t until NCLB. And it won’t be much longer before the future plans of NCLB enter that world too. Are colleges meeting standards? Whose standards? There are children at college banking in on their parents' generousity and they are majoring in unsafe sex, alcohol and internet shopping sprees. Are these children counted in the same column of "success" as the serious students? What about the students who go right to work in order to save for a future vocational career? Are they in the “failure” column? Who failed them and how?

Let’s face it; the assumptions and rhetoric are propaganda, a commercial, marketing tactics for another agenda. Even the nice-sounding ring of “Advanced Placement” is so dishonest; it too has changed, dramatically, since NCLB got a hold over it. These are scripted, rapid-fire, shallow test mills and measuring the building’s “success” by accounting for students funneled into them whether they want to or not, measured by classes taught by teachers whether they want to or not, and trusting that the curriculums are anything more than a standardized elitist reeking bowl of oatmeal when dispensed in this manner is nuts.

Numbers are funny. I understand, sort of, why this author, a scientist, keeps getting back to numbers. Standards are different. They are words. But measurement, when numbers are the only values of interest, just doesn’t fit the bill when it comes to children; and not when it comes to people. Not unless you are incredible honest and moral about their interpretations. Too many variables are overlooked. And too many agendas rest on the accounting of the same numbers. Just look at the recent scrambled accounting over AYP. To one reporter the numbers show improvement, to another they show a disappointing trend, to yet another, they are proof that nothing changes no matter what the standard. And on and on, and on and on it goes, except that these children don’t have time for us to delay our interest in their welfare or education; they are growing as we speak and learning all about us.

Children know what their days and their years are about. My youngest daughter told me just last night at dinner:

“You know, Mom, if it weren’t for your writing and interest in our schools and education, I probably wouldn’t even know that things could be a lot better…But, don’t worry, I do my best, and find the things I love, in spite of the way our schools are run…I hate the constant testing, I hate how unhappy the teachers are, I hate how limited our choices are, how much my classes actually seem to hold me back compared with what I could do…but I still find things that make me happy and excite me in school…”

Account for that.

We couldn’t do better than that?

by Brian Stecher

Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town

The No Child Left Behind Act, a federal law designed to ensure that all children can read and do math proficiently by 2014, comes up for renewal in Congress next year. Debate over its future will center on whether the law is doing enough to improve education across America and to help children succeed in school.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said recently that she is happy with the law as it is. "I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: it's 99 percent pure or something," Spellings told reporters. "There's not much needed in the way of change."

But questions have arisen about the accuracy of student proficiency testing used to chart performance under No Child Left Behind, and about whether math and reading scores -- even if they are accurate -- should be used as the full measure of school progress under the law. Schools whose students fail to hit math and reading proficiency targets set by the states in these two subject areas face sanctions or even outright takeovers.

As the Washington Post reported Sept. 3, many states -- which develop their own proficiency tests -- set proficiency levels in reading and math without any relationship to standards in other states or to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The NAEP, a test known as "the nation's report card," tests representative groups of students in certain subject areas to chart long-term educational trends.

The Post reported, for example, that in Maryland 82 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or better in reading on the state's test -- while only 32 percent of fourth-graders in Maryland scored proficient or above on the NAEP. The Post also reported a similar gap in Virginia -- 86 percent of fourth-graders proficient or better in reading on the state test, compared with just 37 percent on the NAEP.

In contrast, South Carolina's tests are more difficult than NAEP. As a result, only 36 percent of fourth-grade students scored proficient or better in reading on the South Carolina test, compared with 57 percent on the NAEP.

When each state is allowed to set its own standard, measuring compliance with the No Child Left Behind law and comparing performance between states becomes virtually impossible. In fact, some states changed their proficiency levels early on so that more students appear proficient, making it easier for the states to meet No Child Left Behind performance targets

Beyond this, recent studies have shown that schools are spending less time teaching social studies, the arts and physical fitness -- and more time teaching reading and math -- at least in part in response to No Child Left Behind.

Besides the impact of shrinking the curriculum down, why should reading and math proficiency -- certainly of critical importance -- be the sole measures of how well students are doing in school and how well schools are teaching? Shouldn't schools be working to see that no child is left behind in writing, social studies, science, computer skills, art, music, and physical fitness as well?

While No Child Left Behind requires annual math and reading tests for children from 3rd through 8th grade and in one year of high school, the only other testing required under the law is for science exams in three years of school -- but the science scores do not count in a school's report card. Consequently, the only pressure on schools to improve student performance under the law involves math and reading.

But other subjects are important. For example, writing and verbal communication skills have been cited repeatedly by the business sector as necessary for success in the workplace and as being seriously lacking in recent graduates. Music and art are pathways to careers for many students, and they enrich the educational experience for the whole school.

And at a time when poor physical fitness is contributing to record obesity rates and leading to serious health problems for millions of Americans, teaching students the need for exercise in their lives is more important than ever. Not only do athletics help to engage students in school, but participation in sports is important for developing healthy minds and bodies.

Giving all these subjects greater emphasis in the curriculum and in the way school performance is measured should help develop well-rounded children prepared to deal with the important decisions they will face as adults at work, at home and in civic life.

It seems reasonable that if we continue the policy of holding schools accountable, we need to broaden the meaning of school quality to include more of the things that really matter to students, parents and society.

Labeling a school a success or failure based solely on the basis of reading and math test scores reflects a failure of imagination. It downgrades the importance of other subjects and minimizes the value of students' real accomplishments. Imposing sanctions based on such a limited view of the educational landscape is shortsighted.

Furthermore, testing is not the only way to indicate whether students have mastered academic skills.

Calculating the number of semesters required for students learning English as a second language to become proficient would tell us how well the schools serve the needs of an often growing proportion of students.

Assessing the proportion of students who are properly identified for special education services and who promptly receive those services would add to our understanding of the responsiveness of a school to children's needs. So would tracking the ability of schools to provide additional services to students deemed at risk of failing.

Counting the percentages of students in high school who complete college-preparatory courses or who participate in challenging Advanced Placement classes would also add a good deal to our understanding of a schools' overall performance.

The percentage of students going to college is another good indicator of school performance. While graduation rates are part of the measurements tallied by No Child Left Behind, college admission rates are not.

The No Child Left Behind law focuses on a very narrow set of outcomes, and ignores many elements that students and their families find satisfying, challenging and motivating about their schools. An improved No Child Left Behind Act ought to focus on more than standardized tests in reading and math to get a real picture of how well students are being prepared for life.

Brian Stecher is a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

— Brian Stecher and comment by Annie
Washington Post


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