November 2003 Archives
The testing is the most contested part of this whole program. One of the first things to understand is the difference between the sort of tests your teachers made in high school and standardized tests. When teachers make a test, they survey the facts and skills they expect students to have and design a task that will require those. Standardized tests are designed to spread students out over a normal curve so they can be compared; the items are chosen because they are easy, medium, or hard, not because they represent all the material to be taught. So the first and most obvious criticism is that the tests aren�t actually measuring what the standards say they should. What�s worse, though, is that standardized tests are created so that no matter what, 50% of the kids who take it score below average (that�s what average means after all). But that means by definition, if we set the 50th percentile as proficient, it is impossible to have 100% of students score at the proficient level. This is such an obvious criticism, it is hard to believe a satisfactory response is not part of the policy itself. Yet California uses the SAT-9, a standardized test said to be sufficiently aligned with the standards to measure them, even though it was designed as a norm-referenced achievement test and will continue to fail half the students in the state. What�s needed, clearly, are new tests designed to verify the subject-knowledge outlined by standards, but such tests are very, very expensive, and take three to seven years to develop. NCLB set aside quite a bit of funding for developing such tests, but this year Congress approved less than two thirds the amount the bill called for.
The bill�s basic mechanism is to set standards and then test to see if schools are meeting them. Not surprisingly the two most contended parts of the policy are standards and testing, and that is where most of the research has been done.
Standards are supposed to spell out simply and clearly precisely what students whould understand and be able to do at the end of each year. However, most of the standards include too much material to be feasible and are too vague about what students should understand. William Schmidt, who studies education systems in �competing� first-world countries explains, �We're, for example, at eighth-grade telling teachers to teach 35 topics. Other countries are telling their teachers to teach 10 to 15. So there's one aspect of it. But secondly, the standards themselves are often times not very clear or focused, so that a teacher could say, �Of course, I cover that.� And in some sense, they do. But they're over on this corner of it, versus the real depth of the standard, which is over here.� For example a standard may say "Students will understand historical events in the twentieth century," leaving a teacher to wonder whether students should merely be able to list the events, or be able to offer illustrative accounts of each. In sixth-grade Social Studies, teachers are supposed to cover world history from the agricultural revolution through the Rennaissance, about seven thousand years including the incredibly dense cultural innovations of irrigation, myth, writing, democracy, literature, philosophy, the scientific method, and guns. Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust explains the way the standards were created, �in general, there were very open processes, with lots of people, mathematicians, parents, all sorts of people deciding what kids should know and be able to do. And they produced these very thick documents, and sort of threw them at teachers and said, �Here, do this,�� As a result, the standards are not as clear or focused as many had hoped.
When the standards are so impossible to cover and vague, the standardized tests used to measure them become the guide for classroom instruction. In such cases, teachers must �teach to the test,� perhaps the most prevalent problem with No Child Left Behind.
NCLB went into effect two years ago, meaning that each state should now be 1/6th of the way to having all students proficient in all subjects. Schools are starting to fail and be put on the underperforming list. In New York and Chicago, so many parents of students at underperforming schools have requested to have their children transferred to schools that are meeting the standards that the districts are swamped. There are not enough vacancies at schools performing well to accommodate all the inner-city school refugees. Both school districts now stand in violation of the federal law (as well as many others I expect) but no one has yet brought suit. In Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and West Virginia, nearly half or more of schools are not meeting the new benchmarks (source). We are beginning to see the effects of Bush�s policy and the failure of the federal government to afford the amount of time and money it will take to �leave no child behind.� Clinton had a similar program called �Goals 2000� that failed to make any difference and simply faded into dust when schools did not meet the mark in 2000. Will No Child Left Behind simply be ignored and forgotten? For all its flaws, I hope not. Many inner-city school districts have said that it�s pressure is their only hope for the reform they need.