When No Child Left Behind was discussed and passed during the school year of 2001-2002, I was too busy being a first-year teacher to pay as much attention as I should have. At that time in my educational career, I had vague concerns about standardized testing, which I knew was a cornerstone of NCLB, but was hopeful that the bipartisanship with which it passed would yield positive results for students. In addition, I knew that much of the focus of the act was on students with low incomes, disabilities, or native languages other than English, and this is something about which I am passionate. However, further review of NCLB reveals that though well-intentioned in some ways, the act is deeply flawed and breeds mediocrity rather than accountability.
The major problem that NCLB brings with it is the focus on standardized testing. Although is ostensibly gives states freedom to test students however it wants, the desire for schools to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) gives districts an incentive to aim low when writing the tests. This is clearly illustrated with a comparison between standardized tests in Texas and Maryland. In Texas, 91% of students passed the 8th grade Texas reading test in 2001, while only 27% of students passed the state reading test in Maryland. However, when both students were compared using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Maryland students consistently outperform Texas students. Thus, the ostensible success of the Texas reading program seems more a function of an easy test rather than true knowledge.
Because of this, states have a motive to make their tests easier so that their scores on tests look better. This is unfortunate, because, as I have seen in my own school, it involves dumbing down the curriculum so that students do well. In my 9th grade English class, I have some flexibility with my curriculum. However, because of the focus on test scores in the HSA (which, though not a direct result of NCLB, it is our school’s main factor in determining AYP, and thus are strongly emphasized), I am forced to ask my students master a 27-line Brief Constructed Response or a 5-paragraph personal Extended Constructed Response. Despite my best efforts, focus on this regimented, formulaic writing takes away from instructional time that align more with my school’s college preparatory mission for our students. For example, I often cannot provide instruction about how to write an analytic literary essay until the second semester, after the 27-line BCR is mastered. A 27-line BCR is not the worst piece of writing in the world – indeed, it can be a useful tool for a concise piece of analysis – but the fact that the state does not score any writing beyond line 27 flies in the face of other efforts I have with students to elaborate and prove their thoughts in writing.
These complaints might seem to be more relevant at the MD State of Education’s doorstep, and not NCLB’s. However, prior to NCLB, these tests were seen merely as mildly annoying time fillers by many faculty members at my school. Our kids did just fine, for the most part, and we were able to concentrate on just preparing these kids for good colleges. However, NCLB has made the HSA a high-stakes test, and out 90% scores better go up every year or else we will be criticized. This change in focus has forced our English curriculum to ensure that those last 5-10% of the students who were not passing the English HSA without much specific HSA instruction are now passing, and this comes at the detriment of instruction about how to write the type of analytic essays students will need to excel at later in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or college courses. In addition, Baltimore City Public Schools has jumped in, forcing schools to take an additional quarterly benchmark that further takes focus away from higher-level thinking and curricular goals. The state and the district seem so scared and are bowing to the pressure of NCLB, despite its dubious effect on kids’ education.
The dumbing down of standards under the threat of high-stakes testing could lead schools to try to force out or segregate lower-performing students, whether they are of a certain economic group, learning style, or race. By the same token, if teachers know that the working conditions in trying to get low-performing students to pass NCLB-spawned high stakes tests, then they may be less likely to get a job teaching students who may need it most. For example, my college roommate teaches at an alternative middle school in Florida. The school focuses on students who have been kicked out of middle schools in the area because of behavior problems. He says he loves his job, because he sees such growth and development in the kids, and sees it as a success if the kids learn study skills necessary for high school. However, according to NCLB, the school fails to make AYP, and, because of this, the Florida Department of Education (which has tried to be one step ahead of NCLB by taking over schools that fail to make AYP) is taking over the school next year. He and all his colleagues had to re-apply for their jobs, and next year promises to be a great challenge, and it’s simply because this alternative ed Title I school, in which the majority of the students have learning disorders, difficulties, or IEPs – is scored on the same test as other schools in the district. NCLB admirably attempts to combat the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” but it fails to recognize that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all.
Both mine and my Florida friend’s are very specific situations, but criticisms of NCLB should probably be much broader. The main focus should be on the standardized testing. In and of itself, standardized testing is a very limited way of determining student achievement. Objective multiple choice and writing prompt tests may not assess what a student has learned, but rather how well s/he can take a test on a particular day. With most tests, it is dependent on how a student performs in one particular day, and there are many variables in the testing circumstances that may hinder objective assessment. However, this has long been an issue in education. The problem with NCLB is much more dramatic – it is not a longitudinal study, and any real measure of a school’s success should be centered on a student’s growth. How much did Johnny learn going from the 3rd grade to the 4th grade? It seems clear that NCLB’s practice of testing a different group of kids every year yields much less data about a school’s performance than a longitudinal study would yield.
I could go on and on about certain aspects of the NCLB. The fact that NCLB is (to use politicians' words) an unfunded mandate should also draw significant criticism. It is frightfully expensive to even fund all those tests and the scoring of them, let alone giving schools the tools and resources needed to increase scores. In addition, the focus on reading, writing, and math has led to much less focus on social studies, the arts, and foreign languages – all of which are detrimental to our students, making them less rounded individuals and formulaic thinkers.
On the positive side, I am pleased that NCLB has made educational policy part of our national conversation. My teaching mentor, a 13-year veteran and an amazing teacher, tells me that this is the first time in his career that education has been such a focus of discussions and politicians throughout the United States. He tells me that it’s easy to kick around, and it deserves it for the most part, but at least people are talking about education and schools. I agree, for the most part, and believe the George W. Bush steered the act with his best intentions. Still, any national education act that fails to address class size, course load, teacher salary, or the huge gap in resources between public schools in rich areas and in poor or urban areas exceedingly fails to concentrate on most of the main concerns of American education.
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