Evaluating schools solely on basis of one test does students and teachers a big disservice
Federal law has made the results of a single test the sole criterion of how public schools are faring. That puts enormous pressure on teachers and on children as young as eight.
"It's like a ton of weight on your head," said Ann Gray, who teaches third grade at Jones Elementary School in Asheville. "I think it'll be hard," said student Lakell Gaines. "But I think I'm going to pass."
The source of the pressure is the No Child Left Behind law, which went into effect last year. All subgroups within a school, including those with disabilities and those who live in poverty as well as various ethnic groups, must meet testing goals. By 2013-14, every student must meet the goals.
Sanctions include allowing students to transfer to schools that do meet the goals, providing supplemental services or, in extreme cases, closing or restructuring the school. Transfers kick in after a school has missed its targets two years in a row, and Jones barely missed last year.
Classes at Jones have been receiving special assistance all year. Megan Keiser, a literacy specialist with Asheville City Schools, has been working with Gray's students several times a week to help with test preparation. So have several other teachers.
Keiser is trying her best to get students ready for the big test and for life at the same time. She uses such examples as reading TV schedules and selecting reference books in her instruction.
"My goal is to use authentic tasks to prepare for the test," she said. That is a pleasant change from the story, probably apocryphal but nonetheless illustrative, of the teacher who told history students not to study World War II because there wouldn't be any questions about it on the test.
Standardized testing, with consequences for schools that fall short, is not a new thing in North Carolina. The ABCs of Public Education program has been in effect since 1996. But the state program is gearing toward helping schools that don't measure up, by assigning school-assistance teams, while the federal program is geared toward punishing them, by letting their best students transfer out. When that happens, a school is bound to keep on failing and wind up on the shutdown list.
There's nothing wrong with standards, or standardized testing. Without some benchmark that cuts across county and state lines, there is no way of judging how any community's schools are faring as compared to schools elsewhere. We need our schools to meet the needs of every student, and we should demand that they do so. It does no one any favors to promote a child who is not ready for the next grade.
In requiring progress in each ethnic subgroup, No Child Left Behind addresses the achievement gap problem that bedevils schools everywhere. Despite recent progress in Asheville, where the gap between African-Americans and their white counterparts decreased by 12.5 percent between 2001-02 and 2002-03, more than 30 percent of African-Americans still do not perform at grade level, as compared with only some 6 percent of whites.
The problem with No Child Left Behind is that it bases everything on a single test. Students go to school 180 days a year, but everything they do on non-test days is ignored. (That may be a bit of an overstatement, as students have several opportunities to pass, but the point remains valid.)
Besides being nonsensical, this puts extreme pressure on everyone involved.
The people in Asheville did not seem all that worried. "No, I'm not nervous," said Jones Elementary fifth-grader Tiara Neal. "I'm confident that all our schools will pass," said Allen Johnson, associate superintendent of curriculum and administration for city schools.
We have confidence that both are right. We would like it better, however, if our schools were evaluated more broadly than by how their students fare on a single test. Other tests, writing assignments and classroom performance, for instance, ought to count for something.
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