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NCLB Outrages

NCLB tests can tilt even some good schools toward failure

It's past time for teachers to be disgruntled, mad as hell, and unwilling to take it any more.

By Michael Kelley

Talk to the people on the front lines of education reform and they'll tell you it's not like an episode of "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Even in high-performing schools with patient principals, some of the best public school teachers can be reduced to tears in late July when the scores are released from last spring's TCAPs, the high-stakes tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001.

Teachers don't want to be seen as disgruntled. They don't object to the ideas behind NCLB. They don't mind being held accountable.

But they're not sold on the ability of fill-in-the-bubble tests to determine a teacher's effectiveness in motivating students and instilling a desire to learn.

The testing and assessment program that has become President Bush's most significant domestic initiative is changing the nature of the teaching craft, they say. It leaves less time for meaningful learning experiences such as teamwork and project development. Less music, less history, less art and P.E. The focus is on showing proficiency on multiple-choice math and reading tests, and heaven help you if your kids fill in the wrong bubbles.

It's almost a given, however, that measuring achievement is here to stay in public education.

NCLB is due to expire Sept. 30, and changes in the law almost certainly will be made during the reauthorization process. But it is not likely to stray too far from its original goal, requiring students to be proficient in reading and math -- performing at grade level -- by 2014, with science joining that list a few years later.

At Memphis City Schools (MCS) last week, the newly released status report from last spring's TCAP-Gateway frenzy was mostly on the positive side.

Memphis had four more schools this year on the "high priority" list than it had last year, but 15 high-priority schools were improving, and, more important, of the 17 schools that were on the list of schools eligible for state takeover -- now labeled "striving schools" -- 10 moved into improving categories.

Whether this process gives school patrons a credible evaluation of how well teachers are doing is a subject ripe for debate, but the hope in education circles is that congressional reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which otherwise would expire this fall, will help cure some of its ills.

Both MCS Supt. Carol Johnson and Shelby County Schools Supt. Bobby Webb have lists of suggestions for amendments they'd like to see, mostly dealing with flexibility.

It's more realistic and meaningful, Johnson argues, to give high-priority schools three years to develop and execute an improvement plan, rather than imposing sanctions three years in a row for failing to make "adequate yearly progress" in reaching state benchmarks.

Both superintendents point to the unrealistic expectations placed on special education students, who are being asked to meet benchmarks on identical tests taken by regular and gifted students.

Both point to the disadvantage large schools and large districts experience because subgroups (including students with disabilities, English language learners, economically disadvantaged children and minorities) that don't have at least 45 students on their rosters -- a condition that is more likely to exist in a small school or district -- are not counted in a school's overall evaluation.

Another proposed change that would benefit the Memphis City Schools, in particular, calls for students to prove proficiency in English before their standardized tests count toward NCLB benchmarks.

In Congress this year there is a high degree of recognition that NCLB has been underfunded and that changes in the law will be necessary.

It could become standard practice, for example, to compare the performance of schoolchildren from year to year in order to assess adequate yearly progress rather than measuring, say, this year's economically disadvantaged fourth-grade math scores with the math scores of last year's economically disadvantaged fourth-grade subgroup.

The distinction seems subtle, but it was, in fact, one of the proposed changes rolled out by President Bush in January and an assessment tool that has been pioneered in Tennessee.

The so-called "growth model" is considered a fairer and more realistic measure of improvement more suitable to a challenging environment like that of Memphis City Schools, with its many special needs students, English language learners, minorities and kids from low-income households.

If a school moves a group of children toward proficiency at a measurable pace in subjects like math, reading and science, the thinking goes, it should not be considered in need of improvement.

The move toward a growth model, if it is adopted, will become especially important as Tennessee stiffens its definitions of proficiency. By 2009, the state hopes to have standardized tests in place that determine proficiency at the same level as the National Assessment Education Program (NAEP) tests.

Some combination of the growth model and proficiency assessment probably would be the most effective way to measure success, Johnson says.

A district like Memphis, with its high level of diversity, would also benefit from a change in the measurement of adequate yearly progress that would not require schools to produce test results in every student subgroup in order to be judged an effective school.

"The more diversified kids you have, the more at risk you are" of not achieving AYP status, said Steven M. Ross, director of the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis.

"A school like White Station (High School) can have the most merit scholars and still be in 'improvement' status because some subgroup didn't do well," Ross said. "You should hold the school responsible for focusing on that subgroup, but not take punitive action on the entire school because of that subgroup's performance."

The process could also be improved with tests that go beyond measuring a student's ability to fill in the right bubbles on a list of multiple-choice questions.

A writing test in which students were asked to construct responses to questions, instead of hitting on the right choice among multiple options, Ross suggests, would test children's progress at a higher level of learning.

It would give school patrons a better measurement of the instructional talent in the classroom.

Keep the title of the No Child Left Behind Act, Ross suggests, but re-evaluate the idea that every child must be successful in order for schools to be deemed successful. More important is a demonstration of progress.

"There's no human endeavor in which every human can be proficient," he said. "That sets an unrealistic standard. But I like the title. We're not leaving that child behind if we pull that child up."


The No Child Left Behind law works like this: As schools progress toward the ultimate goal, they must show "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) every year by reaching benchmarks defined by state departments of education.

In Tennessee, Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) scores are used to measure how well kids in elementary and middle schools are doing, while Gateway tests are used in high schools.

Test scores for students with disabilities, English language learners, poor children, minorities and the like are reported separately, but if one group doesn't show the appropriate gains, the entire school has not made AYP.

Schools that don't make AYP are assigned to a "targeted schools" list and required to take corrective steps. Two years of failing to make AYP puts a school on a list labeled "high priority"; those schools must develop a plan for improving student performance and their students are allowed to transfer to other public schools in the district, with transportation provided. After the third straight year of failing to meet AYP, the school choice option continues and tutoring is offered to those who stay.

Four years of failure puts a school in "corrective action" status, which requires a new curriculum, the replacement of some employees and, possibly, extending the school day. Five years starts the planning process for "restructuring," which, in Memphis City Schools, under the administration of the departing Supt. Carol Johnson, has been labeled a "fresh start." Six years of failure guarantees a fresh start of some kind. In some cases, that means replacing the staff or a state takeover.

Michael Kelley is an editorial writer for The Commercial Appeal.

— Michael Kelly
The Commercial Appeal


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