the Limits of No Child Left Behind
By Bruce Myint
Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires public schools to
administer reading and writing tests each year between grades
3 through 8. The new guidelines are the nation's latest installation
in a standardized testing movement that began over 30 years ago.
But although testing has remained a school reform fixture, many
have expressed concern that the new testing scheme could worsen—not
better—U.S. public schools.
Shortly after taking office, President Bush unveiled No Child
Left Behind as a cornerstone of his administration's school reform
agenda; a framework intended to revamp the distribution of federal
funds and improve education for traditionally underserved populations.
Despite nearly $200 billion in federal spending since 1965, Bush
emphasized, “too many of our neediest children are being left
How will NCLB ensure that no child is left behind? Primarily,
states will be responsible for breaking down their annual assessment
results by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and English proficiency.
This breakdown will help schools identify whether particular groups
are being 'left behind.' If those groups are not eventually brought
into the fold, schools may be subject to “reconstitution.”
requiring regular testing of public school students in key subjects—failure
would no longer be hidden from parents' view and poor results
would no longer be subsidized by taxpayer funds,” said Rep.
John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Senate conference
The federal government will ensure state compliance of the new
guidelines by rewarding, or withholding, valuable Title I federal
Ironically, federal dollars provide for a very small portion of
school budgets. For example, the Office of the New York State
Comptroller has estimated that only about 4 percent of school
budgets are paid for by federal funds. School districts garner
most of their funding from property taxes (56 percent) and state
aid (40 percent). But despite the relatively meager support offered
by the federal government, cash-poor school districts cannot afford
to lose federal dollars.
This high-stakes equation has put some testing-watchdogs on alert.
To them, NCLB's testing scheme stands to do the greatest harm
to poor schools with underserved studentsóthe population for whom
the new policy is intended.
get high stakes exams and it's teaching to the test, learning
to the test, and the system suddenly revolves around the test,”
said Bill Wetzel, Founder of Students Against Testing, a nationwide
network of young people who resist high-stakes standardized testing.
“We were pretty shocked at the overwhelming amount of bipartisan
support that [NCLB] got despite the fact that, state after state,
once these tests become high stakes, these schools are going to
have a higher dropout rate among poorer communities.”
best these tests only give numbers,” Wetzel added. “They're not
changing any fundamental structure affecting why the school system
is or isn't working for certain students.”
According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest),
an advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, standardized
tests most damage schools serving low-income children since those
schools are the ones that need to get scores up the most. “What
happens with schools serving low income kids is they're supposed
to make a huge amount of progress very quickly and they don't
have the resources to do that job,” explained FairTest president
Monty Neil. “They serve very needy children whose needs extend
beyond anything a school can do. And so schools are going to get
rather desperate to try to get the test scores up and they're
going to do it by very narrow teaching to the test. It won't work
but that's what many schools are likely to do.”
to the test tends to produce inflated resultsóthe equivalent of
holding a match to a thermostat,” added Neil. “But it doesn't
work in the long run because, to use another metaphor, it's like
eating a candy bar before a race; you get a quick boost of energy
may help you. But the conclusion that you should live on a diet
of candy bars does not work very well. And that's what teaching
to the test is. It's a diet of candy bars. It's educational malnourishment.”
How can school districts curb educational malnourishment? Neil
urges schools to take a long term view, encourage a lot of reading
and writing across the curriculum and make sure the kids know
how to think and ask questions. To do so, they must resist teaching
to the test. “In the long run it will probably work better for
raising test scores than teaching to the test,” said Neil.
For Carmen Faria, superintendent of Brooklyn's District 15, testing
is only one part of the school reform equation. “The strength
of the new policy is that it raises expectations for all students
and doesn't allow excuses for low performance. The weakness of
the new policy is thinking that the test is the curriculum and
that ëtest prep' is how children can learn,” she said.
challenge is to balance results from standardized tests with a
variety of other indicators including evidence of student work
in order to make decisions about student performance. The best
preparation for students to succeed in tests is good teaching
every day, which requires exemplary practices,” Faria added.#
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