Happy (Belated) Birthday NCLB! (Part 2)

Yesterday, I talked about the positive achievements of the No Child Left Behind Act. I argued that for all its faults, the NCLB has had an overall positive impact on American education.

Now for the bad news. And I hope Pres. Obama, Sec. Duncan, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein will pay attention for this part, because it's important. NCLB hasn't fixed education. In fact, it has created some problems of it's own. And if policymakers aren't extremely careful over the next few years, the so-called cure will become much worse than the disease.

The three main problems with NCLB are testing, testing and testing. More specifically the assessments themselves, the school and classroom environments created by testing, and the coalescing of corporate interests with education policy are all major problems created directly or indirectly by the changes enacted by NCLB.

Let's start with testing. NAEP test scores have risen under NCLB and NYC test scores have risen under Mayor Bloomberg. Awesome news. But particularly with regard to NYC test scores we have to ask are the tests a valid indicator of progress? Every single one of my students from last year ended up passing the 4th grade. I can say for a fact that all but four or five of these students were below grade levels in reading and/or math, with some of them closer to two grades below level. So what does that say about the tests?

Even if we were to raise the standards of the standardized tests (the Race to the Top specifically asks states to rethink assessments to include more open-ended questions) the general legitimacy of standardized testing as a worthwhile and effective educational tool is far from established. In fact few people would argue the system currently in place is even close to ideal.

The system of standardized testing we use now is simply the easiest way to gather data on the millions of students in the American public school system. But considering the high-stakes nature of testing in the NCLB era, this laziness isn't serving anyone, least of all the students. Computerized adaptive testing like the system used on the GRE is one idea that require an initial investment in technology, but would actually streamline the testing process.

Another idea I've come across repeatedly is to simply change the content of the standardized tests. Instead of students reading randomly selected passages (a classic potpourri of folk tales, poems and how-to's) tests could be based on grade-level content. Third graders would read about matter and global communities. Fourth graders would read about Algonquians and the water cycle. Students would be familiar with grade level content and vocabulary, and "teaching to the test" would no longer push social studies and science to the periphery.

A third idea would be to hire trained teachers (there would have to be caution with regard to conflicts of interest) to assess students using an observational checklist. Students would be asked to perform multiple tasks to demonstrate understanding of grade level performance indicators, rather than fill out a scantron and a couple of written responses. This would be the most labor-intensive, but would also provide the most thorough and authentic data possible.

There are numerous ideas out there to improve the standardized testing currently in place across the country. Whether by raising the bar on the content tested or overhauling the entire system, it is clear that a change needs to be made. Given that the whole system of accountability NCLB has created rests on the validity of these tests, the urgency for this change could not be greater.


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