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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Government FAIL: No Child Left Behind

Originally posted on MyDD on 8-21-08

(cross-posted at Clintonistas for Obama)

“These reforms express my deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America.”

– President George W. Bush on NCLB, announced three days after taking office.

January 2001

In the midst of Bush’s war and our current economic insecurity, many of his less publicized failures are largely ignored by the MSM. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-110), which reauthorized the ESEA, has been vigorously debated among liberals and conservatives. Its stated purposes include increased accountability for States, schools, and school districts; greater choice for parents and students; more flexibility for States and local educational agencies (LEAs) in the use of Federal education dollars; and a stronger emphasis on reading.

Bush has called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “the cornerstone of my administration” (lulz). Unfortunately, the president’s attempt to build the mind and character of every child is slowly crippling our public school system.

A bureaucratic nightmare.

In 2004, Cheri Pierson Yecke, Minnesota’s then education commissioner, mistakenly penalized Edina, widely recognized as one of the best public school systems in the nation, on a technicality which was later discovered to be a mistake. Dr. Ken Dragseth, who ran the school district, was informed that Edina had failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) because state records indicated that three out of 53 Asian/Pacific Islander students had failed to take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments test, which placed that minority subgroup below the 95% participation rate necessitated by NCLB. Though Edina was ultimately taken off the failure list when it was discovered that the three students had indeed taken the test, these sorts of bureaucratic errors are not always so easily resolved.

In its report evaluating NCLB’s impact on Minnesota’s public schools . . . the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor recommended that Yecke’s department not penalize schools for results subsequently shown to be false. Yecke’s response, delivered in a recent letter to the auditor, can be translated through the jargon as no dice. Claiming there are “multiple opportunities to correct school and district data prior to finalizing AYP status,” the commissioner wrote that if the original error came from the school district and the 30-day appeal period has ended, the penalties will stand.

There are significant consequences in Yecke’s petty decision to emphasize bureaucratic procedure over credible test results. As the auditor’s report points out, putting schools and districts on a failure list can have a negative effect “on parents’ perceptions of schools (and their enrollment decisions), on the morale of school staff, and on the NCLB sanctions to which schools are subject.” But the experiences of Edina and Franklin Elementary are but one small byproduct of legislative actions and bureaucratic decisions related to NCLB that will surely discredit, and are likely to bankrupt and dismantle, our public education system.

Under the terms of NCLB, the nation’s public school students must be tested in both reading and math each year from third through eighth grade, and at least once in grades tenth through twelth:

Any school receiving federal Title I money (ostensibly earmarked to improve the performance of disadvantaged students) faces increasingly harsh sanctions if its test scores fail to meet state-defined standards for making adequate yearly progress. After two years of AYP failure, the school must offer students the option of transferring to another public school in the district and bear the cost of transportation. After three years, the school must also offer low-income students tutorial services through a public or private agency approved by the state. After four years, the school district must take corrective actions such as removing personnel or changing the curriculum in the school. And after five years, the district is obliged to blow up, or “restructure,” the school by replacing most or all of its staff or by turning over operations, as the U.S. Department of Education puts it, “to either the state or to a private company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness.”

Despite Minnisota’s educational system’s laudable reputation, NCLB’s requirement that test scores improve year after year is likely to compromise — or even cripple — the system by the year 2014. As the bar is raised higher and higher, standards will quickly become nearly impossible to accomplish.

. . .in its evaluation of NCLB, the scrupulously thorough and nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor estimates that, even if Minnesota students showed a modest improvement in test scores and educational proficiency, 99 percent of the state’s elementary schools would fail to make AYP 10 years from now, and 65 percent of the elementary schools receiving Title I funding would have to be “restructured.” Under its most optimistic scenario for student improvement–which assumes, among other things, that the state’s percentage of special education and immigrant students won’t continue to grow, and that brand-new immigrants can boost their test scores just as rapidly as native-born Minnesotans–the auditor’s office estimates an 82 percent failure rate on AYP for elementary schools in 2014, and the restructuring of 35 percent of the schools funded by Title I.

Large schools that have at least 20 students in each subgroup (at least 40 for special education) can literally have their test results parsed out and measured in 37 different ways. If just one of the subgroups fails to meet just one of the standards (which include a two-thirds rate of proficiency and a 95 percent rate of participation by each subgroup on both math and reading assessments), then the school will be listed as having failed to meet AYP performance goals.

Likewise, it is predicted that a significant percentage of Massachusetts’ public schools will fail to meet NCLB’s educational standards by 2014.

Three-quarters of all schools in Massachusetts will fail to meet federal educational standards by 2014, according to an analysis of student test score data by Ed Moscovitch of Cape Ann Economics. Many of these schools will face increasingly harsh sanctions under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Despite the high failure rate that will occur under NCLB, Massachusetts schools rank at or near the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, the SATs, college attendance rates and other measures of achievement.

MassPartners supports the overarching goals of NCLB, which are to provide all children with a quality education and to close the achievement gaps,” said Joan Connolly, president-elect of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and superintendent of the Malden Public Schools.

“Unfortunately, this law does not help us accomplish those goals. NCLB’s inflexible formulas lead to some misleading results and require sanctions that are often unnecessary or counter-productive.”

[. . .]

As 2014 approaches, more and more otherwise successful schools will fail to make AYP because there are so many ways to fail. For example, sch
ools could fail to make AYP if 100 percent of the students reach the “proficient” level on MCAS by 2012 but only 99.5 percent of them reach that target in 2014, or if three students from a subgroup of 40 are absent for the test.

The veiled attack on public education.

As NCLB imposes harsher and stricter standards on our teachers and students, drop-out rates are increasing, and teachers are fleeing the public school system. Some have posited that Bush’s failed plan may lead to privatization and school vouchers:

With reasonable guidelines and adequate funding, this timetable might have been a prudent course of education reform. But as the first sanctions are just now begininng to kick in, people across the country are belatedly discovering that NCLB is being structured and implemented as a punitive assault on public education, designed to throw the system into turmoil and open the door to privatization.

Meanwhile, DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling is sponsoring a bill that asks Washington for permission not to participate in the NCLB process. “I think all this lip service we hear, caring about poor and immigrant groups, is just a smoke screen for proving that the public schools are failing so they can go to Plan B, which is vouchers,” she says. “If we were going to provide extraordinary intervention so we could help these children, I would be cheerleading NCLB. But instead, we’ve cut funding that would help address their needs. And then if the schools don’t show progress, we’re going to obliterate the schools? No, it’s a punitive bill that bastardizes the name and intent of the Children’s Defense Fund, which is where they got it from.

As much as I hate to wear the tinfoil hat, the overly ambitious goals and unrealistic expectations set by NCLB are suspect. The gradual deterioration of our (already damaged) public school system strengthens the GOP’s argument in favor of school vouchers.

Discrimination, discrimination, discrimination!

Discriminating against the disabled.

Special educators have seen their students subjected to impossible standards, as NCLB fails to adequately take their conditions and disabilities into account. Natalie Gaza, a special educator from Los Angeles wrote,

“I became a special education teacher for two reasons-because I wanted to both teach and advocate for people with disabilities. While going through the teaching credentialing program, I envisioned myself empowering and educating a group of students who have been left behind in the past. What I didn’t expect to be doing was administering tests that were not only inequitable, but unjust and cruel. I will never forget my first year of teaching, only four years ago. A student in the fifth grade – whose ability and performance level as determined by his IEP to be at 2nd grade, forced to endure days of a test at an ability level he in no way could perform – burst into tears. As he sat sobbing and clutching his pencil, I too felt like crying. I believe in accountability and assessment. I do not believe in cruel and unusual punishment. When is this going to stop?”

For example, scores were invalidated for a group of blind students who scored proficient on an NCLB-mandated test because the test was read aloud to them. This accommodation is allowable and widely used in all other testing scenarios but was not part of the test protocol in this instance. As a result, the students’ scores were reported as zeroes in the school’s AYP calculation. This illogical consequence could have been avoided with the inclusion of appropriate protocols.

[Minnesota] Education Secretary Rod Paige announced that special education students defined by the state as having “the most significant cognitive disabilities,” such as autism or a permanent brain injury, will be considered proficient if they pass an alternative test deemed more appropriate for their intellectual development. But Paige capped the scope of this exemption at 1 percent of a school district’s student population, which in Minnesota translates to roughly 9 percent of its special education students. States can ask for further exemptions, but Paige warned that they would only be granted for “small increments above the 1 percent cap,” and would be restricted to “a specified period of time.

Discriminating against limited English proficiency (LEP) students.

Initially under NCLB, LEP students were to be held to the same standards as students whose native language was English, but after months of harsh criticism, the administration modified its position.

By definition, those in the LEP subgroup are unlikely to score well on reading tests. At first, NCLB would have counted the test scores of LEP students who had just arrived in the country and bumped others out of the subgroup as soon as they passed the language proficiency assessment, which is less challenging to immigrants than the reading tests. In other words, NCLB would have required proficiency in reading English from students who had proven they were not proficient in speaking or understanding English.

[. . .Ultimately] Paige’s department allowed Minnesota to exempt the test results of immigrants who had been in the state for less than a year, and allowed others to stay in the LEP subgroup for two years after passing the language assessment. Last month, again in response to vociferous criticism of the LEP guidelines, he extended Minnesota’s relaxed provisions to all 50 states, a gesture that Paige’s department estimates will reduce the number of failing schools by 20 percent.

But research has demonstrated that it can take anywhere from four to 11 years for most LEP students to master English. Even when LEP students do master English, they’re at best on a merely equal footing with students who were raised speaking the language, and for whom the reading test was ostensibly designed. Twenty-six percent of students in the Minneapolis Public Schools are LEP; in St. Paul the figure is approximately one in three. And 77 different languages are spoken by students in the Osseo school district. It remains highly probable that many schools in these districts–which also contain a significant percentage of special education and free and reduced lunch students–will be labeled as failing and eventually have to be restructured because of NCLB

For those schools lucky enough not to have enrolled a measurable amount of students in at-risk subgroups, or through Herculean effort somehow manage to otherwise avoid being put on the list of failing systems, NCLB simply cranks up its testing standards. The required proficiency rates for math and reading will inexorably climb over the next decade until, in 2014, we arrive at the theoretical endgame, where the only options are failure and perfection.

That’s right: Every student in every subgroup must be proficient on every assessment in order for schools and districts to be in compliance with NCLB.

Inadequate funding.

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Even as Bush pushes for academic perfection (ah, the irony!) in America’s public schools, his administration fails to provide adequate funding for his audacious endeavor.

As might be expected, creating an education system that does not allow a single one of our nation’s students to be left behind is going to be expensive. A raft of new tests are being developed, administered, and assessed. As more and more schools inevitably land on the AYP failure list for longer periods of time, the cost of providing tutorial services, transporting students to other schools, changing the curriculum, replacin
g the staff, and eventually restructuring the entire school or district will steadily mount.

[. . .]

In January, the Ohio Department of Education released a study estimating that it will cost about $1.5 billion a year–twice the amount the state now receives from the federal government–to implement NCLB.

[. . .]

William Mathis, a superintendent of a Vermont school district near Rutland and a senior fellow of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education, has analyzed studies from 18 different states, which project the costs of raising test scores to meet either the requirements of NCLB or their own state standards. Nearly all of them reveal that, even with the assistance of federal Title I money, states would need to raise their education budgets more than 20 percent to raise student performance across the board. As needs outpace means and delineations of bureaucratic turf become thoroughly scrambled in this new NCLB environment, tensions have occasionally run high. There’s been talk of local schools and districts suing the state for funds to implement the law, and states doing the same thing in turn at the federal level. And late last month, Paige made headlines with his comparison of the National Education Association to a “terrorist organization” for opposing NCLB.

Teaching to the test.

Maryland Associate Professor of Education Linda Valli’s research indicates that NCLB’s focus on high-stakes testing has “actually undermined the quality of teaching in reading and math.” The pressure placed on both teachers and students to meet the standards imposed by No Child Left Behind has created a stressful environment in the classroom, and has forced teachers to begin “teaching to the test” rather than focusing on fostering creativity and critical thinking skills.

Standardized test questions, with a choice of a, b, c, d or none of these, for answers, may be useful for screening contestants for a round of TV “Jeopardy.” But they do not offer proof or even illumination on how students think critically, solve problems, communicate orally and in writing, or learn.

ELLs in particular have been subjected to relentless drilling.

In the wake of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, standardized tests have become increasingly high-stakes. Yet English language learners (ELLs) typically score far below native English speakers, creating pressure to “teach to the test.”

The necessity of wasting such an enormous amount of time preparing students for standardized tests has negatively impacted the classroom.

It pushes classrooms toward relentless drilling, not something that inspires able people to become teachers or makes children eager to learn. It holds good students hostage to the performance of the least talented, at a time when the economic future of the country depends more than ever on the performance of the most talented.

High-stakes testing is forcing instruction to change from exploratory, lifelong learning to teaching to the test through drill and kill. Teaching to the test has dramatic effects on the validity of the exam. Drilling students on specific methods to achieve high scores on standardized tests is ethically inappropriate conduct for teachers. Haertel (1999) contended that as teachers teach to even the best of tests, the meaning of the tests scores can change, and validity can erode. Thus, a tremendous weight is placed on the assumptions that external performance assessments do, in fact, represent comprehensive, valid, and robust indicators of desired learning outcomes. But there is serious reason to question whether external performance assessments can fulfill those assumptions.

Teaching to the test is eliminating the opportunity for teachers to teach students higher-order thinking skills (Darling-Hammond 2004). Teaching to the test reduces teacher creativity, innovative instruction, the use of varied teaching strategies for diverse students, and teacher and student motivation. However, because teachers’ jobs are at stake, student promotion is in jeopardy, and graduation opportunity is riding on the scores of these tests, it is no wonder that teachers think they are doing students and themselves a favor by teaching to the test. If teachers are training students to perform on these assessment measures, then the validity of the measurement tool is drastically reduced; thus, the results of the assessment tell us little to nothing about the teacher’s instruction or the ability of the student.

Damaging teacher morale.

As the daughter of a teacher, I feel relatively safe in asserting that most teachers enter the profession because they are passionate about it. They certainly aren’t doing it for the money. The conditions under which many of our public school teachers have been forced to work have left many of them dispirited and indignant.

Frederick County, Md., schools our children have attended have turned themselves inside out to try to produce the right test results, with dismaying effects on the content of classroom instruction and devastating effects on teacher morale. We actually lost our best English teacher to the effects of high-stakes testing. “I want to teach my students how to write,” he said, “not teach them how to pass a test that says they can write.” He quit.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (2007) contends that many of the best teachers will transfer from low-performing schools to higher-performing schools, leaving behind students with the greatest need. Flores and Clark (2003) argue that “when teachers’ decision making power is limited, their ability to be innovative in meeting student needs is also limited, thus leading to feelings of frustration and to a sense that their educational role has been reduced to that of a technician. Removing decision-making power from the teacher is a clear example of de- professionalization.” NCLB is leaving the teaching profession behind.

Nice to see we can agree with a few Republicans on something…

No Child Left Behind has proven itself so disastrous that even the Texas GOP is fighting it, claiming that it is, “. . .a massive failure and should be abolished.” Texas has suffered significant losses since the enactment of NCLB.

. . . Texas’ public school accountability system, the model for the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), directly contributes to lower graduation rates. Each year Texas public high schools lose at least 135,000 youth prior to graduation — a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, Latino and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students.

[. . .]

“High-stakes, test-based accountability doesn’t lead to school improvement or equitable educational possibilities,” said Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University. “It leads to avoidable losses of students. Inherently the system creates a dilemma for principals: comply or educate. Unfortunately we found that compliance means losing students.”


Some school official
s have begun reporting false information about drop-out rates to improve their statistics.

The Washington Post later found another high school that reported an unbelievably low 0.3 percent dropuout rate when in fact up to half its students failed to graduate. The CBS program “60 Minutes II” reported that Houston’s entire school system reported a city-wide dropout rate of 1.5 percent when the true dropout rate was somewhere between 25 and 50 percent, according to educators and experts checked by CBS News.

To get around the stringency of NCLB Missouri lowered its standards after the federal law went into effect. Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, explains that some states set low standards because, “They’re trying to make sense out of this. They’re trying to survive.” Each state is capable of creating its own standardized tests,and several have elected to make these tests easier in an attempt to improve scores. Not exactly what Bush had in mind.

Leaving our most brilliant young minds behind.

My mother has worked in the public school system as a gifted teacher for nearly 30 years, and she has become intimately familiar with the devastating impact of No Child Left Behind. While the law attempts to force schools to bring the lowest achieving students up to par, our gifted children are neglected and forgotten.

. . .parents are fleeing public schools not only because, as documented by a recent University of Chicago study, the act pushes teachers to ignore high-ability students through its exclusive focus on bringing students to minimum proficiency. Worse than this benign neglect, No Child forces a fundamental educational approach so inappropriate for high-ability students that it destroys their interest in learning, as school becomes an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.

Bored with repetitive curriculums, gifted children learn to associate school with tedium and monotony.

No Child is particularly destructive to bright young math students. Faced with a mandate to bring every last student to proficiency, schools emphasize incessant drilling of rudimentary facts and teach that there is one “right” way to solve even higher-order problems. Yet one of the clearest markers of a nimble math mind is the ability to see novel approaches and shortcuts to attacking such problems. This creativity is what makes math interesting and fun for those students. Schools should encourage this higher-order thinking, but high-ability students are instead admonished for solving problems the wrong way, despite getting the right answers. Frustrated, and bored by simplistic drills, many come to hate math.

Talented writers fare no better in language arts education. Recently, a noted children’s author recounted her dismay when fifth-graders attending one of her workshops balked at a creative writing exercise. She was shocked to learn that the reluctant writers were gifted. The children, however, had spent years completing mundane worksheets designed for struggling classmates and thus rebelled at an exercise they assumed would be yet another tedious worksheet.

Many parents have reacted by removing their children from the public school system and placing them in private institutions. Meanwhile, the gifted and talented students in our public schools,

. . . struggle because they sit in our classrooms and wait. They wait for rigorous curriculum. They wait for opportunities to be challenged. They wait for engaging, relevant instruction that nurtures their potential.

And, as they wait, these students lose interest in their passions, become frustrated and unmotivated from the lack of challenge their school curricula provides them. As a result, they become our lost talent.

So what’s the bottom line?

John McCain voted for George W. Bush’s legislative catastrophe. Barack Obama wants to completely revamp it:

Right. ‘Nuff said.

Oh yeah, and let me end with one last scary thought…