'No Child' Act a Surreal Test
LAST WEEK, we reported again on the test scores of Maryland schoolchildren, an exercise that gets more difficult and surreal each year.
Blame it on the federal No Child Left Behind Act. A bipartisan piece of legislation promoted by a Republican administration that abhors government regulation, No Child is a monument to Franz Kafka, the Czech writer whose characters found bureaucratic rules illogical and bewildering.
This is, after all, the legislation that requires children who don't speak English to pass a reading test in English.
From sea to shining sea, educators and reporters are striving to make sense of the 1,200-page act and the reams of regulations propounded to carry it out.
No one questions the purpose of the legislation -- to assure that every child in America is proficient in reading and math, and that the groups hitherto left behind have a chance to catch up.
To determine whether schools are making "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, the act relies primarily on a battery of tests given once a year.
That sounds fairly simple. In the early days of Maryland state testing, it was simple. But now the test results have to be broken down to account for five ethnic groups, children in poverty, those who don't speak English and those with disabilities. Collecting, publishing and explaining the data become a nightmare.
In fact, scores are broken down, or "disaggregated," into 18 categories in math and reading at each grade tested in each school. And because a black child can also be poor and disabled, the same student can appear in three subgroups.
Further complicating things is the way the act moves schools along a continuum from OK to failing. There are five categories, ranging from schools that have always made AYP to those that have never met the target and must be overhauled.
Explaining these categories, and how schools move along the continuum of AYP, is a bear.
Education officials would never tell a school that it is failing, nor do they allow easy comparisons of schools and school systems, lest feelings be hurt among the poorly performing.
We in the media, however, do label as failing schools that fall short two years in a row. The State Department of Education puts those schools in "school improvement" status. When the smoke cleared Tuesday, 199 Maryland schools were in that category, meaning they had to change their ways.
With No Child Left Behind, the more data collected, the more rules propounded from Washington and the more bewildering the mathematics. The educators speak of the "confidence interval," for example. What they mean is that they allow for a margin of error when the group being tested is small; the larger the group, the more accurate the results are likely to be. (It's like political polling.)
There's a strange disconnect between the real, live Maryland children, about 480,000 of them, who take the Maryland School Assessments each year and the millions of test data they generate.
Each child is different, each has a distinct mental fingerprint. The data, on the other hand, are cold and inhuman. These days, they're transmitted by computer in nanoseconds. When the State Department of Education put this year's AYP results on its Web site at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, every principal, every reporter, every parent could track them.
Eventually, predicts Gary Heath, Maryland's testing chief, students will take the tests by computer. There'll be instant results, with no humans involved in the scoring, even to grade the little essay answers called "constructed response."
That would be an Orwellian fate worse than death, say test opponents. They say that entirely too much stock is put in one set of tests, that the tests don't cover enough of the curriculum waterfront (and thus prompt the schools to concentrate too heavily on reading and math at the expense of other subjects), and that they don't gauge creativity and other human qualities.
Some go so far as to claim that the tests don't measure anything real, that they're a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
But listen to state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick and others who have bought into No Child Left Behind. The act, they say, is living up to its name. Educators no longer can hide African-Americans, disabled children and others in the averages. Teacher training is improving, and the achievement gaps that are the shame of the schools are beginning to narrow.
I asked Ronald A. Peiffer, the deputy state superintendent for academic policy, for a cost estimate for the testing. About $30 per year per test-taker, Peiffer said.
"When you consider we spend about $9,000 a year on each student, $30 seems well worth it for quality control," he said.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES