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NCLB Outrages

Learning to Live with Nazis--Whoops--Learning to Live with NCLB

Ohanian Comment: People don't have to lie about stupid test questions. These questions exist. I have a collection of them, and I'm gradually posting each one.

More serious than blatantly stupid test questions is the total inappropriateness of the test questions overal, the fact that they are so completely out of touch with childl psychology. If a reporter were willing to take the trouble to read a serious book, he'd find convincing proof in Children and Reading Tests by Clifford Hill and Eric Larsen. I have recommended this book so often that I should get a commission. All I can say is I thought I knew quite a bit about children and reading and this book totally blew my mind.

The authors give children a reading test and then interviewed them about their answers. Their "wrong" answers are very convincing.

Besides that, the questions themselves reveal a duplicity among testers that is outrageous. For starters, why should there be a really clever distractor item? Are we testing kids ability to read? Or are we testing their ability to hold firm to the one right answer, not to be swayed by an alluring distractor?

Learning to Live With No Child Left Behind

I still remember my surprise the day last year I heard one of the nation's best school superintendents -- the resourceful leader of a large and important district -- utter a blatant falsehood to make his state's achievement tests look bad. He said one of the questions on the state history test was to name a famous general's horse. It was not true. There was no question on that test even close to being that trivial, and he could have easily found that out. But he let his anger over he what he considered inappropriate testing get the better of him.

Many school administrators have succumbed to the same weakness, as not only the new state tests, but the new federal No Child Left Behind law putting force behind those state tests, have made their jobs more difficult. Fortunately, most of them have done what this particular superintendent did -- use all their skills to get their students ready to take those tests. That superintendent I admired may have strayed from the facts, but his job performance proved that his words were not much more than an uncharacteristic bit of trash talking.

No Child Left Behind is going to be with us for a while, at least until the newly elected president and congress get themselves organized next year. So despite the irritation many good educators and parents feel toward the law, this might be a good time to consider how we should adjust to it. Stretching the truth is not a good idea. Neither is slamming the law without having a viable alternative to put in its place. Our objective should be to help kids, not score debating points against other adults.

To guide us in our struggle to follow our more angelic instincts, I offer a short but very helpful article by Adam Kernan-Schloss in the March 2004 edition of The School Administrator magazine, a publication of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. The article's title -- "Fighting NCLB's 'Failure' Label" -- alludes to how hard it is to get this right, since No Child Left Behind does not actually include a "failure" label.

Kernan-Schloss is the president of a small company in Arlington called KSA-Plus Communications. He is paid to help school districts communicate better, particularly with parents. He has four children, and thus knows how often our principals or teachers fail to tell us all we need to know. He makes his points through interesting examples of the different ways school administrators approach No Child Left Behind:

"Consider the following two quotations," he says in the article. "A Connecticut school leader observed after the passage of NCLB: 'Requiring every group of students in every school to be proficient within 12 years is like asking every kid to jump the Grand Canyon.' Compare this to the remark by a North Carolina superintendent: 'Yes, parents may have the greatest impact on how their children come to us. But we have the greatest impact on how they leave us.' Now, assume you're a parent, voter or student. Who would you rather have in charge of educating your community's children?"

Kernan-Schloss details the problems with the new law. Tuckahoe Elementary School outside Richmond, Va., had a 1996 federal Blue Ribbon school designation and some of the best test scores in the state, yet did not make "adequate yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind rules last year because it tested only 94 percent, rather than the required 95 percent, of its students. Many Florida schools that received A-plus labels under the state's rating system were put on the federal "needs improvement" list because of similar technicalities.

He knows that calling such schools "failures" is not only wrong, but inaccurate. The label used in the law is "needs improvement." There is no mention of "failing schools" anywhere in No Child Left Behind. He also knows that it is almost impossible to avoid using some derivation of the word "fail" when writing about the law. I have tried to do it and, well, failed. I am careful not to say "failing schools," but I still think it is clear and accurate to say a school "failed to meet the testing targets" or "failed to make adequate yearly progress." Even U.S. Education Department officials spoke of "failing schools" in their early references to the law before they realized opponents of No Child Left Behind were taking that terminology and beating them up with it.

Kernan-Schloss suggests we acknowledge the law's problems and move past them to do what its Democratic and Republican authors say it was written to do -- keep track of how kids are doing in school and help them improve. He says school administrators should send four messages:

1. "Helping all students get to grade level in at least reading and math is the right thing to do. (There is overwhelmingly strong public support for this goal.)"

2. "Helping all children learn more is doable. We have plenty of examples of high-poverty schools that are serving all children. (Being pro-active assumes communicating hope -- the can-do attitude that makes America great.)"

3. "This will not be easy. (Temper hope with realism.)"

4. "It will take all of us, and here is what we as school leaders are doing. (Enlist the support of your community while clarifying how your schools are using performance data to strengthen curriculum and instruction.)"

I think Kernan-Schloss' best suggestion is to not let No Child Left Behind be the only definition of which schools are good, and which are not. He told me he thinks educators and parents can do themselves an enormous favor by just asking themselves this question:

"In addition to reading and math test scores, which clearly are important, what else counts in our community's schools? How do we measure success, in terms of academics, extracurriculars, civic engagement/community service, etc.?"

The possibilities are numerous: awards won by students and staff, growth in after school programs, club membership, college-level course participation, charitable work, senior class projects. The list of important measures of school success NOT covered by No Child Left Behind is very long, and school districts have every right to add them to their late summer reports on how many of their school made adequate yearly progress.

As parents, Kernan-Schloss says, we are learning to read the new school statistics just as we learned to read food nutrition labels. We should not sit and moan over what unfair impressions the labels give, but use the data to help our children learn better, so they can do the same someday for their children.

— Jay Mathews
Learning to Live with NCLB
Washington Post


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