January 9, 2009

School Matters: Seven Years of No Child Left Behind Were Enough

By Annette Fuentes
New America Media

Seven years ago today, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was signed into law by Pres. George W. Bush and there is probably no public school in the United States that hasn’t been shaken by the changes it set loose since then.

At the core of this amendment to federal education law is a system of testing and standards that is supposed to raise student achievement in reading and math, especially for the lowest achieving students. Read Latino and African-American and low-income students of all backgrounds. Schools would have statistics, broken down by race, gender and income level, on which students passed proficiency tests. No longer could bad teachers or poor administrators hide their failures.

But from its beginning, NCLB has promised more than it could possibly deliver because its promises were never rooted in the reality of most classrooms, how most children learn or the challenges teachers face. Instead of celebrating NCLB’s birthday, most teachers, principals, parents and students would probably say it’s time to rethink education reform and Bush’s signature law, which will likely join other dismal policy failures of his administration.

The arrival of a new Congress and a new President means the opportunity to enact real education reforms, not simply make a few adjustments here and there. NCLB has already been tweaked and revamped by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in response to state requests waivers from its near-impossible mandates. California, for one, asked Spelling to waive the NCLB requirement to give kindergarten and first grade students written tests in reading and writing, and allow continued use of its regular assessments of English comprehension. In a state with high numbers of English Language Learners, NCLB’s testing approach would be counterproductive. But Spellings said ‘no.’

NCLB also demanded that California test its eighth grade students in algebra even though half of them don’t take it. Worse, the state has a shortage of credentialed algebra teachers for that grade, making NCLB’s mandate an impossible hurdle. The state faced sanctions from Spellings’ office and the result has been a legal skirmish in Sacramento over the algebra testing requirement. No one can win this one.

NCLB and its reliance on testing should be subjected to the same idea of accountability that it has imposed on students, teachers, school districts and state education agencies. Where’s the proof that, after some $100 billion in federal spending, NCLB has helped students achieve and closed the gaps among different groups? There isn’t any, says Fair Test, an advocacy group in Massachusetts.

“The achievement gap between whites, blacks and Hispanics — as well as with rich and poor students – was well known before NCLB and it does nothing to close the gap,” says Fair Test’s Robert Schaef-fer. “You don’t need to set up a system that punishes schools instead of helping them and creates pressures for classrooms to become test prep centers.”

Opposing high stakes testing does not mean throwing out all testing. Fair Test and every educational expert agree on the need to assess student achievement and provide needed intervention. But as Schaeffer notes, test score gains nationally rose faster before NCLB, not after. As a reform strategy, its’ been a dismal failure. Relief could be on the horizon. Pres.-elect Barack Obama and his choice for education secretary, Arne Duncan, say they like the accountability of NCLB but not so much its emphasis on high-stakes testing. That’s a good starting point for educational change we can believe in.

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