November 21, 2003

The Students Bush is Leaving Behind

By Todd Oppenheimer

Now that the nation’s schools have had a year to adjust to President Bush’s much vaunted education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, its real consequences are beginning to surface — and it’s not looking good. Various governors and state officials, including those from Republican-leaning states such as Florida, West Virginia and Tennessee, are noticing that the president has treated them to the ultimate bait-and-switch: He has demanded more of their schools while cutting the money needed to do the job.

In California, Roy Romer, the superintendent of Los Angeles schools, has found the law’s definitions of academic progress so arbitrary that he’s told his underlings to ignore them. Further north, San Lorenzo superintendent Arnie Glassberg is wondering how he, or any other superintendent, is going to get 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading by 2014, as Bush’s law requires. More than half the schools in many states are already failing to meet the law’s new standards. And things look like they will only get worse. Each year, new students pour in, including some from other countries who have language obstacles. Yet the federal bar indicating “adequate yearly progress” continually gets higher.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to the president’s tax cuts, government revenues — and thus, school funding — will continue shrinking. The San Lorenzo district, for instance, already lost $2 million this year. “As time goes on, the failure list will get bigger and bigger,” Glassberg said. “It will look like schools aren’t doing their job, and that’s not true.”

Before the pressure to fund Bush’s education law more generously becomes unbearable, let’s pause to think about exactly what definition of academic progress we’re buying.

In some schools, wise principals and teachers have used the law’s new testing standards to leverage more profound understanding of the “three Rs.” The vast majority, though, are so desperate to pass these tests that they’re ignoring valuable subjects that aren’t being tested — principally foreign languages and the arts, the latter being a domain that science has shown can develop broad, creative, even analytical skills. Meanwhile, obsession with standardized tests has reached nearly absurd proportions.

A particularly graphic example has occurred in Texas, where the president’s ideas about education obviously hatched. Pressures to excel on this state’s exam, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), have been so intense that they’ve created a whole new industry. There are “TAAS camps,” instructional videos for teachers, cram booklets and tutorial software such as “HeartBeeps for TAAS,” which, by mid-2000, an estimated 1,000 schools had purchased at $4,200 a copy. In many schools, class work has been largely given over to test preparation from New Year’s through April.

Texas students have of course raised their scores as a result. But evaluations by college admissions officers and groups such as the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group, indicate the students haven’t learned much in the process.

This should come as no surprise. Standardized testing is such an oversimplified science that even experts who support it suggest its results be used only as a guide, not as a final scholastic judgment. Learning, imagination, and student potential are fundamentally human challenges, and trying to evaluate these attributes with crude numbers consistently yields false judgments. One new study of 20 states, by the University of Oregon’s Center for Educational Policy Research, found that standardized high school exams are providing a poor indication of students’ readiness for college.

“Tests tend to test how one individual performs on that kind of test,” on that given day, says education reformer Theodore Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a system funded by Bill Gates that aims at smaller classes and focuses on essential academic subjects. “It’s like taking a temperature in the hospital. It’s one important index, but it’s only one. We’re judging kids on the basis of their temperatures.” William F. Goodling, a former Pennsylvania Congressman and chair of the House committee on education and the workforce, once put it this way: “If testing is the answer to our educational problems, it would have solved them a long time ago.”

Meanwhile, the number of testing inaccuracies have increased tenfold in recent years, as states across the country rush to process more tests than the testing industry can reliably produce and grade. California, for example, is one state that offers cash bonuses to high-performing schools. Yet, a recent investigation by the Orange County Register found that differences in school size, fluctuating enrollment, and the exclusion of some students from testing are making test results unreliable — so much so that a third of the millions of dollars in bonuses are going to California schools that may have simply gotten lucky.

If political leaders want to put more money into education, they should be able to come up with something better than leaning even more heavily on these exams. If we want real change in the schools, we could start by revitalizing teacher training, coupled with a meaningful raise in teacher salaries. After all, it’s a little strange to watch politicians, who repeatedly say education is their top priority, pay the people in charge of that job half of what other professionals earn.

Oppenheimer, winner of a National Magazine Award, is the author of “The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved,” published this fall by Random House

Return to the Frontpage