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Testing Unfair To Vo-Techs

In the next couple of weeks, the state Department of Education will release the 2003 test scores that are used to measure student achievement in high schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Many high schools will be designated as "in need of improvement" because their scores do not meet the federal goals.

As an administrator in a state vocational-technical high school that has already been identified as "in need of improvement," I envy my colleagues in Cheshire and Somers who can afford to reject Title I funds and avoid compliance with the federal law.

Title I money is used to provide remedial math and reading instruction to students who come into my school with low skills in those critical areas. For my school, it's not discretionary funding. It's essential to our mission to teach basic literacy and math skills. Students in the 17 vo-tech high schools form the backbone of the Connecticut economy because, unlike many students in affluent suburban high schools, they stay in Connecticut, build careers and families, and pay taxes here. My school can't afford to give up reading and math teachers because the No Child Left Behind law comes with "bureaucratic nonsense," in the words of David A. Cressy, Cheshire's superintendent.

It's ironic that this huge unfunded federal mandate, with its unrealistic achievement goals and punitive consequences, was passed by a Republican-led Congress and signed by a Republican president. Isn't that the political party that is supposed to be against big-government intrusion into local and state matters such as education?

The law may have been well intentioned, but its implementation has become a nightmare that you never wake up from. It is so disengaged from the reality of life in a school that local and state attempts to comply with its myriad mandates and concomitant sanctions have created an Orwellian atmosphere of fear and stress. All this in a post-9/11 and post-Columbine world where the last thing children need is more fear and stress. Not only that, but the whole construct is fundamentally unfair to certain students.

For example, students in my school system have only 91 days of academics a year because the other 91 days are spent in the shop learning drafting, computer electronics, manufacturing technology, culinary arts or carpentry. However, our students are held to the same achievement level on the 10th-grade Connecticut Academic Performance Test as students who have 182 days of academics. Our students have half the time to prepare for a test that is used by the state to measure academic achievement under No Child Left Behind. Is this fair?

Even worse, the CAPT is now being considered as a graduation requirement, even though our students have only about 150 days of academics when they take the test. This makes no sense.

What would make sense is to give all incoming freshmen an assessment in basic math, reading and writing and then assess them with the same instrument at the end of their junior year to determine how much they have actually learned. In this way, adjustments might be made for students such as mine, who spend less time on academic subjects.

Unfortunately the No Child Left Behind law is designed to punish schools and instill fear and stress in the school community. It is accomplishing that goal. Local school boards and administrators with shrinking budgets are throwing overboard classes that are not relevant to No Child Left Behind assessments. Art, music, foreign language, electives and gifted-and-talented programs have all been cut. And even though a large majority of our schools require serious capital expenditures to fix antiquated heating systems and leaking roofs, it is easier for an Afghan or Iraqi mayor to get U.S. federal funding for his school than it is for local school districts in this country. Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture?

Thankfully, the No Child Left Behind law has become a campaign issue for the next presidential election, as it should. As an educator, I believe, support and work hard every day to promote the idea that every child can learn, given the right conditions at home and at school. But the No Child Left Behind law is a huge mistake that is distorting and destroying the fundamental strengths of public education.

Spencer Clapp is an assistant principal at E.C. Goodwin Regional Vocational Technical School in New Britain.

— Spencer Clapp
Testing Unfair To Vo-Techs
Hartford Courant


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