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New York City
June 2002

Testing the Limits of No Child Left Behind
By Bruce Myint

President 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 behind.”

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.”

“By 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 committee.

The federal government will ensure state compliance of the new guidelines by rewarding, or withholding, valuable Title I federal funds.

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.

“You 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.”

“At 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.”

“Teaching 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 and it
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.

“The 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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