Is no child left behind finally on the way out?
Posted by Texas Education on January 19, 2009
NCLB gave us grade schoolers literally throwing up under the pressure of high stakes testing. It gave us a cottage industry
of prep books filled with multiple choice exercises. It gave us the discontinuation of art and music classes to provide time for TAKS practice ( i.e.) teaching to the test.
A writer named Margaret Downing tells a story about her experiences as a tutor a few years ago:
…I signed on as a volunteer tutor at my local elementary. I was matched with a student – I’ll call him Eddie – who was failing miserably at both the math and English portions of the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills), a statewide minimal skills test that was the precursor to today’s TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills).
I took him on in math, it being the worst of all his subjects, and began a series of one-on-one weekly meetings. It soon became apparent that while Eddie’s multiplication and division skills were very shaky, his ability to subtract once we got into double digits was no better. Asked to compute 25 minus 17, Eddie’s eyes darted around the room looking for an escape hatch. There were too many numbers to count on his fingers.
Word problems only ramped up the agony.
We continued meeting. I took him back to subtraction and then up to multiplication and division. I talked with his teacher, who’d show me more failed papers, and then Eddie and I would go over them.
He began to improve. I wasn’t the perfect teacher but I was someone paying extra attention. The grades on his class math tests weren’t stellar, but better.
The week after the TAAS, I showed up for my session with Eddie. Of course the scores wouldn’t be reported for a while, but we were optimistic. Then the teacher asked what I was doing there. The TAAS is done, she said. You’re through.
There were several weeks still to go in the school year. Eddie was still Eddie. He still needed a lot of extra help with his math and his English and probably other subjects as well.
As I walked out of the school after being dismissed, I realized I hadn’t been helping a kid. I’d been helping a kid prepare for the state test, which really meant that I’d been helping that school toward a higher accountability rating so the teacher and the principal could be sure of their jobs.
I thought of Eddie when I was talking with Rice professor Linda McSpadden McNeil, who has co-authored a study showing that the increase in Texas’s statewide test scores directly correlates to lower graduation rates.
In fact, it contributes to them, she believes.
Scores have been rising, not because all these students have suddenly mastered the TAKS, but because low-scoring students have been forced out by administrators whose own job success depends on good student scores.
After all, who wants to carry an Eddie on his record?
And thus it has been over the last seven plus years. High stakes testing has been a special disaster for minority students, a group we will need to maintain our economic prosperity as he population demographics tip inevitable toward these groups.
A Harvard educational report put it this way:
As this report demonstrates, the graduation rate in Texas is far too low, but only slightly below the national average of 70% for the Class of 2003.1 Fewer than 60% of Black and Latino students in Texas earn regular diplomas alongside their classmates.2 For Black and Latino males the rates hover just over 50%.3 Most educators and the National Governor’s Association agree that these low graduation rates describe a crisis, especially for minority youth.
Inside the schools high stakes testing had become life a death issue for teachers, administrators , students and parents. Careers were at stake for teachers and administrators. For students the stakes were staying in school or dropping out with all that means for future hopes and dreams.
Under the pressure of high stakes testing class room instruction was forced into the narrow channels of learning to take a test. Out with educating the whole person, out with creative and challenging teacher curriculum, in with test practice. In also made a sham of individualized concern for students, and efforts to reach the difficult kids.
The discipline system used for bored, troublesome, sometimes just flat out classroom trouble makers has been more often than not some form of in-school suspension, either in the school or in the “district-wide” variation. In theory students are removed from the classroom because of their disruptive behavior and spend weeks, months in tightly supervised room with other trouble makers. Teachers must send work for them to do ( at least in the system I am most familiar with). In the case of in-school suspension, the teacher ( at least in the system I am most familiar with) , has to go and instruct the student or students during her free period. Meaning, if she takes the requirement seriously, she has no period at all on some days.
In fact, the efforts at keeping these kids caught up, at providing them with meaningful instruction appear to me to be a pure sham. What the school apparently want is for these troublesome youngsters to simply disappear, drop out and thus no longer count against their test scores as failures. Guess who is disproportionately represented in this group of students. If you say minorities and low SES students, you win the prize.
From the beginning there was every reason to believe that high stakes testing was a mistake, and worse, a calculated ploy to destroy public education and install vouchers and “free market” solutions in their place. One clue was the way it flew in the face of what experts and educators know about learning :
There was always something slightly insane about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the ambitious education law often described as the Bush Administration’s signature domestic achievement. For one thing, in the view of many educators, the law’s 2014 goal – which calls for all public school students in grades 4 through 8 to be achieving on grade level in reading and math – is something no educational system anywhere on earth has ever accomplished. Even more unrealistic: every kid (except for 3% with serious handicaps or other issues) is supposed to be achieving on grade level every year, climbing in lockstep up an ever more challenging ladder. This flies in the face of all sorts of research showing that children start off in different places academically and grow at different rates.Add to the mix the fact that much of the promised funding failed to materialize and many early critics insisted that No Child Left Behind was nothing more than a cynical plan to destroy American faith in public education and open the way to vouchers and school choice.
Now a former official in Bush’s Education department is giving at least some support to that notion. Susan Neuman, a professor of education at the University Michigan who served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush’s first term, was and still is a fervent believer in the goals of NCLB. And she says the President and then Secretary of Education Rod Paige were too. But there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda – a way to expose the failure of public education and “blow it up a bit,” she says. “There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.”
She goes on to point out:
…the Administration’s use of humiliation and shame as a lever for school reform. Failure to meet NCLB’s inflexible goals meant schools would be publicly labeled as failures. Neuman now sees this as a mistake: “Vilifying teachers and saying we are going to shame them was not the right approach.”The combination of inflexibility and public humiliation for those not meeting federal goals ignited so much frustration among educators that NCLB now appears to be an irreparably damaged brand.
Under Secretary of Education Spelling, reality forced the ideologues to back off and inject a little more flexibility in the system, but too late to save NCLB.
Texas lead the nation into the age of high stakes testing. We may be leading the nation out of that era as well. High Schools will replace the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) with end of course examination in core subject matter, not generalized knowledge or whatever TAKS tried to test, starting in 2010-2011 school year. Can grade schools and junior highs be far behind? I hope not.
Early last week, another indication of where educational accountability is going was unveiled.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings signed off on Texas’ plan to give schools and districts credit for students who fail state exams in reading and math – if they are on track to pass in coming years.
Texas is one of 15 states that have won permission to use a so-called student growth model when calculating their federal No Child Left Behind ratings. The model also is likely to become part of Texas’ own accountability system after the upcoming legislative session.
‘Kids have bad days’
Educators generally support evaluating schools based on growth, rather than rigid passing standards that don’t take into account students who arrive in the classroom several years behind grade level.
“Many people will perceive that this lowers standards, but the standards that were set were arbitrary anyway,” said Jim Parsons, executive director of accountability for the Humble Independent School District.
Parsons said the growth model will allow schools some cushion, say, for students who fail the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills by a single question.
“Just looking at passing gives us only a one-shot view of what a student does,” he said. “People have always complained that that has been inadequate. Kids have bad days.”
The Texas Education Agency estimates that 136 more school districts and 411 more campuses would have met the No Child Left Behind standards in 2008 had a growth measure been used. That represents an 11 percent increase in districts and a 5 percent increase in schools making the grade.
“Our ability to use a growth measure for accountability purposes will help recognize the hard work being done in schools where students are making significant educational progress,” state Education Commissioner Robert Scott said.
In other words, the new scheme will have a squishy standard called ” on track to pass in coming years”. Sounds like an escape hatch out of high stakes testing. Everyone can save face by saying that the standards are still in place, while giving schools a get out of jail almost free card with this hard to quantify new standard. I am all in favor of this shell game if it lets teachers get back to teaching and not simply test tutoring.
I am leery of leaving you with the impression that the new system will solve our dropout and other public education issues by itself. It won’t. The problems in schools are connected to the problems of families and schools can’t change that fact . Jobs with adequate pay or lack of them, healthcare or its absence still draw sharp lines between the chances of the haves and have-nots in our schools. Texas ranks at the bottom in children’s insurance, surely not a hopeful statistic for our educational revival.
A further note of caution. Pearson Educational Measurement, the state’s testing contractor, has developed the “growth model” . These are the guys who have made huge bucks, billions, form the high stakes testing. Why would I trust them to develop and implement the alternative scheme? Answer, I would not.
Additionally cautionary is the fact that the Godfather of Bush’s high stakes testing , Sandy Kress, who came back to make big bucks as a lobbyist for the Pearsons of the world also likes the new idea. I would not trust this guy to know what was good for public education any more than I would trust a cannibal to advise me on vegetarian cusine.
In sum Richard Rothstein puts it this way:
…NCLB is dead. It will not be reauthorized — not this year, not ever. The coalition that promoted the 2001 bipartisan law has hopelessly splintered, although NCLB’s advocates in the administration and the Congress continue to imagine (at least publicly) that tinkering can put it back together.
Good riddance I say.
Still, don’t stop paying attention though as the alternatives are put in place. With Pearson and Kress in the picture we are not out of the woods yet.