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NCLB Outrages

Under ‘No Child’ Law, Even Solid Schools Falter

Rich Gibson Comment:
Those who claim to do school reform without
doing social and economic
reform in communities are those who clean only
the outside glass on a
fish tank. It won't work, a fact so obvious
that only the dishonest
would deny it. Bi-partisan support of the
regimented curricula,
high-stakes standardized exams, and military
invasion that sum up the
NCLB is met by the reality that many NCLB
backers profit from
inequality. NCLB has nearly eliminated the
history curriculum, made
literacy a chore; not surprising for a nation
promising perpetual
war and meaningless jobs, or no jobs, to youth.

The tests measure
parental income, race/nation, and subservience.
They create an
employer-employee relationship in the
classroom, eradicating trust
and freedom, the benchmarks of learning. Kids
in fear learn to not
like to learn. Dubious success. What to do? Opt
out of the exams and
the military. On exam weeks, set up freedom
schools where people
actually learn to comprehend and change the

By Sam Dillon

SACRAMENTO â Prairie Elementary School had not
missed a testing target since the federal No
Child Left Behind law took effect in 2002.
Until now.

The school, perched on a tidy, oak-shaded
campus in a working-class neighborhood here,
has moved each of its student groups â
Hispanics, blacks, Asians, whites, American
Indians, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, English
learners, the disabled â toward higher
proficiency in recent years.

Over all, the number of its students passing
tough statewide tests had increased by more
than three percentage points annually, a solid

But this year, California schools were required
to make what experts call a gigantic leap,
increasing the students proficient in every
group by 11 percentage points. For the first
time, Prairie, and hundreds of other California
schools, fell short, a failure that results in
probation and, unless reversed, federal
sanctions within a year.

âAnd theyâre asking for another 11 percent
increase next year and the next, and thatâs
where Iâm saying I just donât know how,â Fawzia
Keval, the schoolâs principal, said. âIâm
spending sleepless nights.â

Across the nation, far more schools failed to
meet the federal lawâs testing targets than in
any previous year, according to new state-by-
state data. And in California and some other
states, the problem traces in part to the fact
that officials chose to require only minimal
gains in the first years after the law passed
and then very rapid annual gains later. One
researcher likens it to the balloon payments
that can sink homebuyers.

Part of the reason for the troubles was that
the states gambled the law would have been
softened when it came up for reauthorization in
2007, but efforts to change it stalled. This
year Congress made no organized attempt to
reconsider the law. With the nation facing
urgent challenges, including two wars and
economic turmoil, it could be a year or more
before the new president can work with Congress
to rewrite the law.

The law requires every American school to bring
all students to proficiency in reading and math
by 2014. When it was first implemented six
years ago, it required states to outline the
statistical path they would follow on their way
to 100 percent proficiency, and about half set
low rates of achievement growth for the first
few years and steeper rates thereafter.

Here in California, which in 2002 had only 13.6
percent of students proficient in reading,
officials promised to raise that percentage on
average by 2.2 points annually from 2002 to
2007, but starting this year greatly accelerate
the progress, raising the percentage of
proficient students by 11 points per year
through 2014.

Now that the time has come for that accelerated
improvement, California schools are not keeping
up. This year, about half the stateâs 9,800
schools fell short.

âWeâre hitting a balloon payment scenario, to
use a housing analogy, where the expectations
set forth in the federal law are far higher
than recent performance levels,â said Richard
Cardullo, a professor at the University of
California, Riverside, who led an analysis of
the performance of state elementary schools.

His study, published Sept. 26 in the journal
Science, found that the proportion of students
scoring at or above proficiency increased, on
average, less than four percentage points
annually from 2003 to 2007, far short of the 11
percentage points of annual growth required
starting this year.

âLots of schools are no longer going to be able
to meet the lawâs requirements,â Dr. Cardullo
said. His study predicted that virtually every
elementary school in California would fall
short of the federal lawâs expectations before

Why did California decide on six years of
relatively slow achievement growth, followed by
six years of extraordinary gains? Officials
from many states told the Bush administration
in 2002 that they needed time to write new
tests and accustom teachers to them.

But the California state school superintendent,
Jack OâConnell, said he also bet that Congress
might change the law in 2007, perhaps by
removing its 100 percent proficiency goal.
âItâs true that was in the back of my mind when
we negotiated our plan with the feds,â Mr.
OâConnell said. âAnd Iâd do the same thing
again. Iâm still hoping a new administration
will change the law.â

Meanwhile, the law has had other unintended
consequences â including its tendency to punish
states, like California, that have high
academic standards and rigorous tests, which
have contributed to an increasing pileup of
failed schools.

A state-by-state analysis by The New York Times
found that in the 40 states reporting on their
compliance so far this year, on average, 4 in
10 schools fell short of the lawâs testing
targets, up from about 3 in 10 last year. Few
schools missed targets in states with easy
exams, like Wisconsin and Mississippi, but
states with tough tests had a harder time. In
Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Mexico, which
have stringent exams, 60 to 70 percent of
schools missed testing goals. And in South
Carolina, which has what may be the nationâs
most rigorous tests, 83 percent of schools
missed targets.

âThe law is diagnosing schools that just have
the sniffles with having pneumonia,â said Jim
Rex, the South Carolina schools superintendent.

Under the law, all public schools must test
students every year and if those in any group
fall short, the school misses its targets and
is put on probation. All states adopt their own
curriculums and testing standards, and the
rigor of the tests varies greatly.

Schools that miss targets for two consecutive
years are labeled âneeding improvementâ and
face escalating sanctions that can include
staff changes or closings. Partly because the
law is identifying thousands of schools,
however, few states have tried to radically
restructure more than a few.

Margaret Spellings, the federal education
secretary, acknowledged in an interview that
the lawâs mechanism for holding schools
accountable needed refinement because it works
as a pass-fail system in which schools with
only minor problems are in the same category as
chaotic institutions with students running the

âWe passed the best law we could seven years
ago,â Ms. Spellings said. âThereâs wide
recognition that this is something we need to

Under a pilot program known as differentiated
accountability, Ms. Spellings has given six
states â Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana,
Maryland and Ohio â permission to treat schools
labeled for improvement that have missed
targets for only one group differently than
those needing sweeping intervention.

But the rate at which schools have been
identified as needing improvement has not yet
become worrisome, she said. âPretty much every
organization needs improvement,â she said.

Ms. Spellings has fiercely defended the lawâs
requirement that all students achieve
proficiency by 2014.

Among that provisionâs most tenacious critics
has been Robert Linn, a University of Colorado
professor emeritus who is one of the nationâs
foremost testing experts. He argued, almost
from the lawâs passage, that no society
anywhere has brought 100 percent of students to
proficiency, and that the annual gains required
to meet the goal of universal proficiency were
unrealistically rapid, since even great school
systems rarely sustain annual increases in the
proportion of students demonstrating
proficiency topping three to four percentage

âIf, no matter how hard teachers work, the
school is labeled as a failure, thatâs just
demoralizing,â Dr. Linn said.

Ms. Keval, the principal at Prairie Elementary,
has been fighting demoralization herself since
learning of this yearâs test results, she said.

Educated in British schools in Kenya, she
speaks Urdu, Swahili and five other languages,
and several teachers said she was an
inspirational leader. Ms. Keval described her
staff as qualified, hard-working and dedicated
to student progress.

Eight out of 10 children at the school are poor
â the children of gardeners and maids, retail
clerks and short-order cooks, the unemployed â
yet all groups have made progress.

When the law took effect in 2002, 22 percent of
all students and 19 percent of blacks were
proficient in reading. Ms. Keval has for
several years used federal money to hire extra
reading teachers and to organize additional
instructional time for low-scoring students
after school and during vacation periods.

As a result, reading proficiency has increased
on average by nearly four percentage points
each recent year, although black students have
improved more slowly. On Californiaâs state
tests this year, 42 percent of Prairieâs
students schoolwide and 40 percent of Hispanics
demonstrated reading proficiency. But only 29
percent of blacks demonstrated proficiency, and
since California schools were required to raise
the proportion of proficient students in every
group from 24 percent to 35 percent this year,
that was not good enough. The school has been
put on probation.

âI know weâll continue to make gains with our
students, but whether we can meet the next No
Child target remains to be seen,â she said. âIn
one year, its hard to make an 11 percent

Dr. Linn said Ms. Keval had good reason to

âAn 11 percent increase from one year to the
next, that is pretty gigantic,â Dr. Linn said,
âcompared to how most schools improve from one
year to the next.â

— Sam Dillon, with Rich Gibson Comment
New York Times


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