No Child Left Behind needs big changes

While watching election returns last November, I felt particularly proud of friends and family in Montana as they elected to send labor-endorsed candidate Jon Tester to the U.S. Senate. Among his many selling points, Tester is a former teacher and school board trustee, and a state legislator whose voting record was 100 percent in line with the positions of the Montana teachers’ union.

With Tester and other Democrats in a newly elected Congress, things are looking much brighter for public education. The specter of vouchers is (at least for the moment) receding, while increased funding is more likely with a Democratic majority. But there is still much cause for concern regarding the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Both Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), head of the House Education Committee, and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Education Committee, have expressed their support for the main tenets of the law to stay intact.

And these are precisely what need to be changed.

NCLB’s central flaw is its narrow characterization of “accountability” that has led to the use, misuse and abuse of high stakes standardized tests.

Depending on your age, you may recall filling in bubbles as a child, i.e. answering the ubiquitous multiple-choice questions that predominate in standardized tests. Purportedly “objective” due to machine scoring, the content, phrasing and “correct” answers for these questions are all subject to human biases and error, and typically assess only lower-level cognitive abilities of knowledge recall and comprehension.

Attaching “high stakes” to these tests for schools (withholding funds, restructuring schools, replacing staff, state takeovers, etc.) and students (grade retention, denial of diploma, etc.) creates dire consequences for teaching and learning.

Despite copious amounts of research confirming the negative effects of grade retention, this practice is still widespread and becoming more so in the wake of NCLB. Being “held back” a grade dramatically increases the probability of a child dropping out of school, while any academic gains realized in the first year of retention are lost within two to three years.

The higher the stakes, the more schools are pushed to “teach to the test.” As knowledge recall and comprehension on reading, math and (in the future) science are the only skills tested, they become the only skills taught. Analysis, synthesis, creativity and original thought disappear from the curriculum. Social studies, art, gym and even recess are cut from the schedule. Schools become little more than test-prep factories that suck the life out of children and those responsible for their education.

While proponents claim NCLB will narrow the achievement gap, it has the perverse effect of undermining the education of poor and minority students most. When “achievement” is defined as performance on a standardized test, those students who historically perform poorly on standardized tests are the first targeted for instruction on nothing more than how to pass them, and their schools the first targeted for unproven high stakes sanctions.

Though key Democrats and business leaders have expressed support for NCLB, many of the incoming freshmen legislators ran campaigns critical of NCLB, and some of the remaining conservative legislators are wary of the federal intrusion into what has traditionally been an area of state and local control. The debate for them and everyone needs to be reframed from how to “fix” NCLB to how to radically redefine the central idea of accountability.

Deb Wilmer (dwilmer_az @ hotmail.com) is a public education activist.