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NCLB Outrages

Learning Measures Unfair, Critics Say

Ohanian Comment: I worry a whole lot more about damage to children than profit to publishers, but just on the face of it, this is very very weird. Why do the Feds insist that all these children write their names on test booklets?

What is even more worrisome to me is the silence of teachers. Why don't we have a march on Washington?

Some Iowa educators charge that the federal government has set unattainable standards for students with disabilities and those learning English, causing dozens of schools last month to be warned to improve students' academic performance or face sanctions.

Early estimates show a disproportionate number of schools and districts are on Iowa's "watch list" because they failed to improve test scores of special education students and English-language learners, even though the districts met achievement goals in other areas, said Iowa Department of Education officials.

Some Iowa school officials question how they can improve test scores of students who, in some cases, can barely speak English, or read and write at their grade level. For example, some school officials said students learning English could do little more than write their names on the standardized tests and turn them in unanswered.

"When you don't read the language, it's hard to take a test," said Vinh Nguyen, coordinator of Des Moines" English Language Learner program. "It's not fair to put the children through this. I would say it's like torture for these kids, especially for a newcomer . . . to sit through these tests."

The watch list is the state's warning to schools that they could find themselves on a national list of schools "needing assistance" and in some cases face federal sanctions if they don't improve student achievement in entire grade levels and demographic groups.

In January, state officials released the watch list, which included 145 public schools and 50 districts.

Under the two-year-old federal law called No Child Left Behind, all students are expected to meet minimum proficiency standards in reading, math and science by 2014.

Parents and school officials say the large number of schools on the watch list - including several affluent districts - underscores the flaws of the federal law.

"I don't believe there's any school in the state of Iowa that can meet the standards for all of the subgroups," said Lane Plugge, Iowa City schools superintendent. "I would be willing to bet all of the larger schools are on it because of special education."

Critics say the law unfairly stigmatizes special-needs students.

"What they are saying is our special-needs students should take the same test and must score at the same level as their counterparts. Give me a break," said Cedar Rapids Superintendent Lew Finch. "What is the logic in that? Why do you suppose they are in special ed? It completely discounts what their teachers are doing for those kids."

Others worry that schools, under federal pressure to improve school performance, will begin segregating special-education students and those with other learning challenges because they are seen as bringing down test scores. In the past decade, an increased number of special-education students have been placed in regular classrooms.

"You hate to see it get to a point where maybe because the special ed scores are lower because of the ways they integrate them into the general school that schools become segregated again," said Cindy Smothers, the mother of a special-education student at Cedar Rapids' Kennedy High School.

Under the federal law, special-education students must take tests closest to their grade level. A recent change to the law allows up to 1 percent of students with severe learning disabilities to take alternate tests. Just 0.8 percent of Iowa students took alternate reading and math tests during the 2002-03 school year, officials said.

Some school officials said they would like to see the alternate tests made available to more students with disabilities.

"When we talk about (special-education) students, we're talking about a wide range of students," said Cedar Falls Superintendent Daniel Smith. "The debate is whether 1 percent is adequate."

Parents and educators said the law contradicts previous special-education legislation. Under federal law, students identified as having learning disabilities have what is called an Individualized Education Plan. Such plans set unique goals for each student, such as turning in assignments every day or controlling impulsive behavior.

In the past two years, all Cedar Falls High School special-education students took the Iowa Tests of Educational Development, something not required in the district before the federal legislation became law, said Tracy Johns, a special education teacher there.

Students were given tests closest to their grade level, and some were allowed more time or quiet places to take the test.

But Johns questioned whether the test score data were a meaningful measure of the students' success. "It's just one measure," she said. "I'd like to think what we're doing every day - in their portfolios, in daily projects, in other evaluations we do - is more meaningful."

Iowa students learning English, meanwhile, also took the same tests as peers in their grade level.

"We gave it to students who basically put their name on the paper and handed it in because they could not take the test," Plugge said.

Development of alternate tests for students learning English has been held up because of the large number of native languages spoken by Iowa students, said Judy Jeffrey, an administrator with the Iowa Department of Education. The tests could be available as early as next school year, she said.

Jeffrey said she expects fewer districts to be cited for failing to improve test scores of English learners once the alternate tests become available.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools must annually meet reading and math proficiency goals set by the state in fourth, eighth and 11th grades; graduate 90 percent of students; and test 95 percent of students. Also, entire grade levels must show gains, as well as demographic groups, including low-income and special-education students, minorities and those learning English.

Schools that fail to make prescribed gains or that don't meet other standards for two straight years face sanctions ranging from allowing students to transfer to other schools to requiring tutoring services.

Randy McCaulley, superintendent of Perry schools, said it's frustrating to be labeled for failing to meet achievement goals when the school district is working so hard to help students of different abilities succeed. English is the second language of about 24 percent of students in the district.

"We're working with these students to help them get acclimated to American culture and society. They're doing the very best they can," he said.

— Madelaine Jerousek
Learning measures unfair, critics say
Des Moines Register


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