Schools are supposed to be making dramatic progress toward having all their children — that’s 100 percent of them — performing proficiently in reading and mathematics by the year 2014. States from Michigan to Texas and from coast to coast have been manipulating their tests to reflect hearty gains or else to mask failure. The good and solidly Republican state of Utah, embracing the John C. Calhoun imperative, is saying that the federal law just doesn’t apply there and it is going about its own business. The education director in Connecticut is defying Washington, too, because she says the law is setting education back. She is refusing to administer the high-stakes achievement test in every grade, which risks a cutoff of federal aid for the schools. Enough testing is enough, she said, and besides it is soaking up tens of millions of dollars that ought to be used to actually teach kids.
Some of the early independent evaluation suggests that they have good reason to be alarmed.
The Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit organization that develops tests for 1,500 school districts in 43 states, ought to have an interest in seeing that NCLB and its massive testing regimen produce the dramatic results that the law promised. But its scientific evaluation of test data for more than 320,000 students in 23 states draws anything but that conclusion.
Its results are not conclusive and the researchers don’t claim them to be, partly because they do not include many big cities with high enrollments of black and Hispanic students, but only the most incurable Pollyanna will take comfort from them.
While schools have continued to make small gains in the same grade from one year to the next since NCLB was implemented in 2002, the improvement rate falls far short of expectations in the act. One hundred percent proficiency by 2014 is out of the question.
But the researchers made two findings that it described as “worrisome” and at another point “troubling.” “Scary” is more appropriate.
Individual student growth has slowed since schools began the heavy standardized testing and teachers began devoting their energies to preparing students for the tests. While overall scores of fourth graders from one year to the next climbed slightly, when students were measured on what they knew early in the school year and what they knew at the end, the progress was smaller than student growth before NCLB was implemented. That is ominous.
Even more worrisome in the eyes of the researchers was a widening of the gap between the achievement of white students and minorities, principally Hispanic and black students. Growth among students in every ethnic group slowed after NCLB, but the growth was “noticeably less” among Hispanic and black students. Minority students who have the same test scores as white students at the beginning of the school year tend to lose ground against them by the end of the year.
Now that is exactly the opposite of what is supposed to happen. The poor achievement by minority students is the great shortcoming of American education, and closing the chasm is the central objective of NCLB as well of most state school reforms like our own in Arkansas. This research suggests that high-stakes testing, the meat of NCLB, is not the answer and may be another cause of the problem.
The researchers suspected that teachers, under pressure from administrators to get overall pass rates up, spend an inordinate amount of time preparing marginal students to get over the hump, to the abandonment of kids far behind and well ahead.
The organization did not want to be alarmist about standardized testing. It found some positives from them. After all, it designs tests. It said there was some evidence that kids in grades where state tests were administered made a little more progress than those in some other grades.
But if students on the whole are not progressing considerably faster than before, what is the point of the revolution? Schools and state education establishments at great embarrassment are watering down tests to make their children and themselves look better, the bureaucracy and paperwork are drowning schools, and teachers are forced to abandon sensible teaching principles to drill kids endlessly for standardized tests that may or may not have a lot to do with what they need to know to make a good life.
Education has weathered passing fads of its own creation for a century and a half. This one, imposed by politicians, will be far costlier for all of us.