January 7, 2007

Growing Resistance to "No Child Left Behind"

Growing Resistance to "No Child Left Behind"
by Dr. Monty Neill,

The upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), now named "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), offers the new Congress an opportunity to repair the worst aspects of the federal law and turn it into a tool for supporting school improvement rather than punishing schools serving our most disadvantaged students. Though NCLB’s serious deficiencies didn’t rise to the top of the list of voters’ concerns in the recent elections (there was a lot of competition!), there has been no shortage of voices in the growing national chorus calling for NCLB reform.

For example, Communities for Quality Education has catalogued efforts in all 50 states to take action to fix NCLB since 2003. Many of these proposals focus on NCLB’s inadequate funding, but others seek substantive revisions or call for a state to opt out of NCLB entirely.

Parents, students and community leaders have spoken about the problems they see at forums around the country, including some sponsored by the Public Education Network. Surveys, such as the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, show that the more people know about NCLB, the more they disapprove of the law. NCLB's prescriptions are rejected by large majorities. In poll after poll, educators overwhelming oppose key NCLB requirements, finding the consequences more harmful than beneficial.

Nearly 100 national education, civil rights and religious groups have endorsed the “Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind Act” calling for major changes to the law. Many of the signers have also offered detailed proposals to amend the law. Congress should listen carefully to these many critiques and act on their recommendations when it comes time ESEA reauthorization.

Signers of the Joint Statement agree that NCLB's goal of narrowing achievement gaps and improving achievement for all students is a worthy one. But they have seen mounting evidence that its mechanisms for forcing improvement are harming those who most need help. Indeed, FairTest's review of the evidence shows that NCLB is actually undermining efforts to improve schools (documented and analyzed in Failing Our Children).

Key problems with the law include over-emphasizing standardized testing, narrowing curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation; over-identifying schools in need of improvement; using sanctions that do not help improve schools; inappropriately excluding or retaining in grade low-scoring children to boost test results; and inadequate funding. The law not only punishes schools, it damages educational quality, particularly for those the law purports to help – low income children, children of color, those with learning disabilities, and those who are just learning English.

What is a better roles for the federal government to play in improving education, particularly for low-income and minority-group children? The Joint Statement concludes, "Overall, the law’s emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement."

In future posts I will present concrete proposals for overhauling the federal law, based on the Joint Statement. For now, I will close with five guiding principles from a recent FairTest article in Rethinking Schools:

First, the goal should be high-quality teaching and learning to benefit the whole child, not drill-and-kill to artificially inflate scores on mostly multiple-choice tests in a few subjects.

Second, a new law should focus on the capacity of schools to improve, including adequate resources, professional development, and stronger parental involvement.

Third, any accountability structure must use multiple forms of evidence, not just scores on standardized tests, as the basis for making decisions.

Fourth, sanctions must be a last resort and tailored to meet specific problems, not arbitrary actions using one-size-fits-all formulas. They should also be designed to build capacity for improvement, not punish schools and districts.

Fifth, the new law should effectively empower educators, parents, and communities to work together collaboratively, rather than move responsibility ever further from local decision-making. It should also include equity and civil rights protections to ensure that local empowerment does not allow majorities the power to ignore low-income, racial minority, English-language learning, or disabled children.

Deja-vu All Over Again: National Test Plan Resurfaces
Thursday, January 25, 2007 5:38 PM

Many have observed that the farther you travel from the classroom, the stronger the support for No Child Left Behind becomes. Still, it is disheartening to see new policy proposals from on high that are more likely to worsen than solve NCLB’s many flaws. The latest example is a resurrected campaign for a national exam. Proponents cite discrepancies between state test results and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as evidence that such a test is now needed more than ever. Similar proposals have previously been soundly defeated, and some pundits think the idea will gain little traction beyond a limited set of policy elites. Proponents, however, brim with confidence, calling such policies “inevitable.”

As with NCLB, the lack of evidence that a national exam based on national standards will help improve schools does not dampen political enthusiasm for these quick fixes. Like NCLB, a national test would be costly and irrelevant to many real educational needs and distract attention from developing real solutions -- such as high-quality professional development to help teachers create and use high-quality classroom assessments. And like NCLB, they perpetuate the illusion that education can be improved if only there is a "good test" to define educational outcomes and control curriculum and instruction.

Leading the charge, former U.S. Education Secretaries Rod Paige and William J. Bennett co-wrote a Washington Post commentary in the fall titled “Why We Need a National School Test.” They argued that NCLB is not working because “most states have deployed mediocre standards, and there's increasing evidence that some are playing games with their tests and accountability systems.”

While plugging pet theories such as school choice and the notion that more money does not improve education (at least for public schools), they argue that the only way to make NCLB work is for federal officials to impose a consistent standard via a national exam, publicize all results down to the school level, then “butt out.”

These arguments may sound familiar. In fact, they rehash previous efforts to implement a national test. President George H.W. Bush proposed such an exam, which was defeated in Congress primarily by Democrats. (FairTest played a key role in marshaling education and civil rights groups to block that scheme.) President Bill Clinton's administration began to use general Education Department appropriations to develop a national exam, until Congress barred anything more than item development. That prohibition was initiated by a coalition of conservative Republicans and African American and Latino Democrats.

The right-wing Fordham Foundation, headed by former Education Department officials Chester "Checker” Finn and Michael Petrilli, has been a major supporter of NCLB (despite some recent reservations) and is on board the latest bandwagon. Fordham released a report in August entitled To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America's Schools. The four possibilities:

1. Mandatory federal standards and assessments to replace the state-by-state system.

2. A voluntary version with federal incentives to states (e.g., more money, fewer regulations) to opt into such a system.

3. Federal incentives for groups of states to collaborate on developing common standards and tests.

4. More “transparent” state standards and tests, made easier to compare to one another and to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

But conservatives are not alone in the new push. In January, liberal Senator and NCLB loyalist Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who chairs the Senate's education committee, introduced a bill encouraging states to peg their proficiency levels to those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He proposes that NAEP would be updated to set "a national benchmark that is internationally competitive."

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Dodd (R-CT), the second-ranking Democrat on the education committee and now a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, joined with Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, (R-MI), in proposing legislation to reward states that adopt voluntary "American education content standards." The National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, would supervise development of the standards. To obtain the awards, a state's test would have to be aligned with the standards. A common test probably would follow.

Treating the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as the gold standard, would be a terrible mistake. First, like state tests, NAEP exams are only limited measures of what students ought to be learning. Second, researchers from the National Academy of Sciences and the Government Accountability Office, among many others, have found the NAEP levels ("proficient," etc.) to be flawed and inappropriately difficult. Third, only a minority of students in the highest-scoring nations would reach "proficient" on NAEP. Would everyone else – and their schools – fail? What then?

Rather than set things right, making NAEP the national standard would likely exacerbate NCLB’s negative consequences, bringing even more teaching to the test and less hope of offering all students, whether advantaged or not, a education that addresses the needs of the whole child.
- For more information, see FairTest’s fact sheet on national testing at www.fairtest.org/facts/ntfact.htm

- At press time, Kennedy's legislation, S. 164, was not available through Congress; his press statement about the bill is at kennedy.senate.gov/newsroom/press_release.cfm?id=62ced8ab-9b4a-4c04-9f6db46b8a3026d1

- Similarly, Dodd's presentation about his bill S.224 is at http://dodd.senate.gov/index.php?q=node/3699

- When printed, the bills will be posted at thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.html.

- Monty Neill is Executive Director of FairTest http://www.fairtest.org/. A earlier version of this article appeared in the January 2007 FairTest Examiner (available via email for free, from the website).

No comments: