Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Democrats and Congress fail on NCLB

Of all the things we expected Congress to fix when reauthorizing NCLB, the over-reliance upon standardized tests to measure both student learning and school success was first on the list. Maybe taking seriously the federal government’s historic and proper role in insuring equal educational opportunity for all our children was too much to ask. (See the previous edition of this newsletter for our hopes on that agenda). But given the overwhelming evidence of how the testing craze was dumbing down curricula, narrowing teaching and limiting the educational experience of our most school-dependent children, fixing this part of the law seemed obvious.

But the obvious has seemed to escape our representatives, so time for some more editing on the incomplete drafts of NCLB reauthorization we have seen so far.

There is an abundance of evidence of the harm that the NCLB-mandated regime of tests to be taken at least seven times by every child in America’s schools. Reports from the Center for Educational Policy , the Council for Basic Education, and even the usually administration-friendly Fordham Foundation illuminate what is going on. We have outlined these concerns in an earlier post. Unfortunately, while these and other reports have diagnosed the disease, the cure they often suggest—more testing in other areas, just spreads the illness around.

If you have any doubt that the press for more and more tests is hurting not helping schools, a front-line exposé leaves no doubt of what is going on. If you have not yet picked up a copy of Tested by Linda Perlstein get to your bookstore and order it now. And when you are done with it, march straight to your congressperson or senator’s office and insist they read it before voting to reauthorize NCLB. Perlstein spends over a year in a school struggling to make AYP, and they do. But the cost in terms of the school experience for both children and their teachers makes it clear the battle is not worth it. Perlstein pulls no punches, both pointing out that some teachers like the new packaged reading programs they use to jack up test scores because “now I don’t have to think” and chiding parents who send kids to school lacking sleep and supplies. But she saves her most important points for the policy makers that have put in place the test-driven accountability of NCLB.

Following the day to day experiences of real kids and real teachers she shows how the focus on tests is, as one teacher put it, making students “learn the (writing) formula but forget how to think.” Science kits are left unopened in the back of the classroom, engaging chapter books are left unread, school assemblies are only cheerleading efforts for test day, and district specialists plot out ways to have teachers concentrate on the ‘bubble kids’ (the ones who may just inch up their scores enough to pass and make the school look good). All of this in the name of getting more points on the mandated tests so the school meets the federal AYP goals.

It is stories like these that are probably behind the growing public dissatisfaction with NCLB and with our reliance on standardized tests to tell all there is to know about our schools and children. But even when, in the recent reauthorization bill put forth by Congressman Miller, chair of the House Education Sub-Committee, a small experiment allowing non-standardized assessments to be utilized is put forth the usual shouting and name calling begins. In hearings on the Hill so-called student advocate groups called such provisions a roll back on accountability and an abandoning of our commitment to equity.

This too is more of the same when it comes to NCLB. To date there has been no fair and honest discussion of fundamental assumptions that underlie the law and the issues that bedevil it. To wit: What evidence is there that the test scores the law sanctifies actually tell us anything about student success after school? What has been lost in our schools due to the focus on testing? How have we ignored students that are certain to pass or fail tests while schools focus on ‘bubble kids’? Why have perfectly good alternatives to such tests, as used both here and abroad, been attacked by the federal government? And, who benefits (or profits) from the over $570 million to be spent this year on standardized tests by our states—money that could have put almost 16,000 more teachers into classrooms this year?

Unless the reauthorization of NCLB addresses these issues, we will have to continue to return the draft legislation for revision. In the spirit of helping young writers improve on their craft, I want to suggest three resources they could consult in improving their work.

The Forum has published a research brief on performance-based assessments that illustrates what could be done instead of the current focus on standardized testing.
Senators Feingold and Leahy have introduced the “Improving Student Testing Act of 2007” which reduces the number of tests given, allows for and funds performance assessments, and holds off the date when all student must be proficient until NCLB is fully funded.
And The Forum’s original “Guiding Principles for ESEA Reauthorization" presents the changes we feel are necessary.
The Forum remains committed to educational policies that provide for equitable, engaging, and community centered educational opportunities for every child. As federal policy, NCLB fails on all of these counts. It is time that was admitted and a serious discussion of how to support our public schools is undertaken. As Perlstein puts it: “An honest airing (about where the accountability movement is taking our schools) would acknowledge how little the test tells us about students, and it would address the failure of accountability rules to do anything about some of the root causes of poor performance in schools: lack of preschool, lack of medical care, poor parent education, impoverished communities.”

Given the unwillingness of those inside the beltway to take on this discussion, it is unlikely that NCLB will be restructured in ways that will help every child learn or every teacher teach. It is time for something new.

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