Are we testing kids too much?
Landmark law that has polarized educators faces rigorous exam from new Congress. That's the conclusion of the reporters. But they didn't seem to find any educators willing to speak out against the law.
By George Basler and Connie McKinney
Jay Hoffacher's stomach rumbles every time he has to take a test required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. And the sixth-grader at Johnson City Elementary/Middle School has been taking a lot of these tests ever since third grade.
"The children are more nervous because of the testing," said his mother, Ro Hoffacher. "I do worry about that."
But Vickie Gilbert, who teaches sixth-grade English language arts and social studies at Windsor Middle School, said the tests have helped raise the bar for both teachers and students, and that's a positive. "It helps us focus our instruction," she said. "It's another tool I can use to help me determine what my students' needs are."
The opposing viewpoints crystallize the debate over No Child Left Behind, one of the centerpieces of President Bush's domestic agenda. Put together by the Bush administration and passed with bipartisan support in 2001, the law took a low-key funding vehicle -- the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- and turned it into an extensive set of federal regulations.
In the process, it dramatically changed everyday life in schools across the nation.
Now, as the 2007-08 school year opens in the Southern Tier and northeastern Pennsylvania, the law faces a pivotal time in its history. NCLB is up for renewal in the House and Senate this fall, and education interest groups are weighing in on changes they would like to see made.
Meanwhile, Southern Tier educators are waiting to see the end result, although all expect NCLB to be around in some form for years to come.
While debate over the law's future goes on, advocates on both sides agree schools are different places because of NCLB.
Put succinctly, the law -- with its focus on testing, accountability and measuring student achievement -- is "the biggest development in elementary and secondary education in at least the last 25 years," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C., education research group.
For schools, it has meant:
States now must test public school students in reading and math every year from third through eighth grades and make the results public. In New York, elementary and middle school students also are tested in science and social studies. New York students must pass five Regents exams to graduate from high school while Pennsylvania 11th-graders are tested in English and math.
"In our school, somebody was getting tested every other month," said William Tomic, an elementary principal in the Union-Endicott Central School District for 15 years until his retirement in June.
More use of data:
"We've become much more sophisticated in looking at data and using it to guide what we're doing," said Peggy J. Wozniak, superintendent of the Binghamton City School District. And that's a real positive, she said.
School administrators now routinely analyze reams of data from state tests and district assessments to look for gaps in instruction and chart the progress of student subgroups. Teachers use the information in their classrooms as well.
NCLB has proven the maxim that "what gets tested gets taught." Districts across the region have revised their curricula to make sure they are covering the skills tested on the state tests.
One positive result has been the alignment, and coordination, of curricula K-12 to avoid gaps and redundancies, said Robert Bundy, superintendent of the Chenango Forks Central School District. "There used to be islands, with different grade levels on each island. Now we're looking to be seamless," he said.
Educators in the Southern Tier now face the reality that their schools are rated on whether they make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) based on students meeting benchmarks on state tests.
Not only do students as a whole have to meet the benchmarks, so also do students from different subgroups, including students with disabilities, those living in poverty and ones from various minority groups. Failure to make AYP lands a school on a list of schools labeled as "needing improvement." Southern Tier schools on the list have included Union-Endicott's Jennie F. Snapp Middle School, Binghamton's two middle schools, Norwich Middle School and Binghamton High School.
Without question, the changes have meant more pressure.
"We all feel a level of stress. I'd be lying to you if I said we didn't," said James Fountaine, principal at Union-Endicott's George F. Johnson Elementary School.
Maine-Endwell Superintendent Joseph F. Stoner got a first-hand look at this during a training session for teachers. The atmosphere was relaxed until the topic of NCLB came up. "The atmosphere changed," he said. "The smiles turned to frowns."
In very real ways, NCLB has meant significant changes in the classrooms, teachers and administrators said.
One change has been the integration of reading and writing instruction into other subject areas, such as social studies. Teachers also spend time reviewing for state tests and doing "parallel tasks" that match the format of the state exams.
The school day has become more structured and crammed than it has ever been. "For good, or bad, we're more sensitive to time," said Suzanne McLeod, assistant superintendent for business and elementary education in the Union-Endicott district. Teachers are more focused on maximizing every minute, and tight schedules exist even at the elementary school level, she said. For example, U-E's elementary students now do a 90-minute block each day devoted exclusively to literacy instruction.
As a teacher, Kathy Close sees this, too. "Teachers have to prioritize what they can do and can't do in the time allotted," said the 21-year teaching veteran at Windsor's Floyd Bell Elementary School. "You have to constantly assess what you're doing," she said.
And students see the fallout as well. Teachers spend a lot of time reviewing for state tests, said Erin Wagstaff, 11, an incoming sixth-grader at Maine-Endwell Middle School. "Some kids panic, but some kids are used to it, like me," she said.
Proponents say this helps focus instruction. "It brought people's attention to keeping kids on task every single day," said Carol Eaton, superintendent of the Whitney Point Central School District.
But some educators wonder if the focus on improving state test scores is squeezing out the teaching of other skills and projects teachers use to spark student interest and in-depth learning.
There's less freedom to explore "teachable moments" that could spark a child's inquiry, said Noreen Dolan, principal at Binghamton's Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. "They tend to be lost, and that's sad," she said.
Some teachers said they feel this constraint.
"You were never told to eliminate things, but you pretty much had to. A lot of the creativity was taken out," said Elaine Errigo Gilyard, a teacher in the U-E district who retired in June after 33 years. For example, students in her class did less creative writing, she said.
Teachers have more difficulty going in-depth on topics, said Cathy McLain, a recently retired middle school social studies teacher in the Binghamton City School District. Going in-depth is not rewarded on the state tests, she said.
Some parents are concerned as well. Hoffacher worries that teachers are too focused on teaching only material that will appear on state tests.
But some administrators question the assumption that the pressure of NCLB will stifle the creativity of good teachers.
"A good teacher will always find a way to make content come alive," Tomic said.
Still, it's a balancing act, Stoner said. While NCLB has the positive impact of focusing attention on student learning, it has the potential danger of sucking life, creativity and fun out of a school, he said.
"We're at risk of becoming testing centers instead of schools," Stoner said. "Great principals try to reinforce that school is still fun."
Ask teachers and administrators to name what's right with No Child Left Behind, and many will mention one thing: It has required schools to focus on the academic performance of students who may have been overlooked in the past -- disabled students, the poor and minority students.
Schools previously could mask the performance of these groups by reporting average student performance. Under NCLB, this is no longer the case, said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
But there's plenty of disagreement, even anger, on how the law seeks to achieve the goal of improving the academic performance of all students. What teachers especially dislike is the focus on expanding state tests and using the test to rate schools' performance.
The accountability system is an especially sore point in larger, more urban districts, such as Binghamton and U-E, that are more likely to have sufficient numbers in various student subgroups to be rated.
A key problem is that districts get no credit even if they are making improvements and moving in the right direction, said Sean Brady, a parent in the Binghamton district. For example, Binghamton met 24 of 28 state benchmarks for student performance, but still made the state's list of "schools in need of improvement" because special education students at the high school did not meet benchmarks for Adequate Yearly Progress.
"The punitive consequences are the same as if the district missed all 28 benchmarks. That's insane," Brady said.
And don't think being put on a list of "schools in need of improvement" doesn't have fallout in community feeling about a school, said Anne Marie Foley, principal at U-E's Jennie F. Snapp Middle School, which was on the list for two years.
Parents had questions, and the faculty was initially dispirited, she said. It "took a lot of massaging" to get through it, she added.
Meanwhile, some teachers and administrators contend the amount of testing at the elementary and middle school levels has become excessive, time consuming and expensive to administer.
Some parents agree. "There's a lot of pressure for these little kids," said Bert Proper, whose son, Zakery, will enter fifth grade at Susquehanna Valley's Brookside Elementary School.
NCLB is a good idea that has gone awry because of the amount of testing, said Stacy Ernst, a parent of two students in the Vestal Central School District. Students as young as kindergarten are now being required to take multiple-choice tests, she said.
"We had math work every single day" to get ready for the state test, said Sara Rostedt, 11, an incoming sixth-grader at Maine-Endwell Middle School.
But officials see no chance that testing and accountability won't continue in some form as Congress reauthorizes the landmark federal law. They fully expect No Child Left Behind to alter the American educational landscape for years to come.
"The law is not going away. Lawmakers, and the public, want accountability," said William Burke, principal of Chenango Forks Middle School.
As much as some people might not be crazy about the law, it's keeping people focused on student achievement, Close added.
Stoner is blunt: "School is a more serious place than 10 years ago."
George Basler and Connie McKinney
Press & Sun-Bulletin
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES