Columns » Ernest Dumas

Tests won't cure poverty

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This summer break marks the midpoint of the No Child Left Behind Act from enactment to fulfillment, and we ought to know if we are halfway to nirvana or to colossal disappointment.

Officially, it is the former. The government agencies in charge, from Little Rock to Washington, D. C., claim to be making dramatic progress toward the law’s goal of having every single child reading and computing proficiently by the 2013-14 school year. The truth clearly is something much different, though perhaps not the cataclysm that the law’s critics predict.

NCLB is the boldest educational experiment in the nation’s history. It is George W. Bush’s signal achievement, but the law’s most idealistic goals were shaped by liberal Democrats and cheered by civil rights groups. The law required that schools specifically had to raise the achievement of historically disadvantaged children — African-Americans, Hispanics and English-language learners — on the same terms as it did for others. They were the ones who had been left behind in American schools, and the law recognized that every one of them was entitled to a qualified teacher. Each group had to make the same annual progress.

The state Education Department claims that Arkansas’s benchmark test scores show the state making the required Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), thanks to the punishing prescriptions of the federal law and to reforms enacted by the legislature under orders of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Sure enough, measured by test standards that the state itself set (and repeatedly lowered), Arkansas is suddenly making more progress than most other states.

But there is a nagging disconnect about those scores. On national norm-referenced tests measuring the whole country by the same standards, Arkansas is not doing nearly so well. Neither are other states, like Mississippi, that geared their own criterion-referenced tests to achieve dramatic success.

All that you can say for sure about NCLB is that it is having a serious effect on the education of American children. Whether it is wholly or even marginally good is another question.

The great fear engendered by NCLB’s central enforcement device — punishing schools, teachers and students for failure to meet yearly testing goals — was that it would force troubled schools to teach the test to the exclusion of a comprehensive curriculum. That is a widespread practice, especially where teacher compensation also is linked to benchmark test scores. Whether focusing education almost altogether on a series of fill-in-the-correct-bubble tests has truly dumbed down the curriculum in the schools remains to be seen, but the comparative scores on national tests suggest that it has.

The illogical premise of the law is that youngsters are not learning because teachers simply do not want or care to teach them or else they do not get sufficient goading from the principal or superintendent. All that is needed is a threat of effective reprisal. The problems are tougher than that.

The central failing of the schools before NCLB is their central failing since: educating poor children. Every educator knows the problem. Educational achievement always tracked poverty, and NCLB has made no change.

Failing schools — those 40 percent-plus that have landed on the detention list since 2002 — are almost altogether those that have very high percentages of children below the poverty line. From Little Rock to the Mississippi River, they are the schools that fail to make the annual progress on the benchmark tests and score even worse on the national tests.

Here is a secret about the schools’ failings: the quotient of children in poverty is growing, not subsiding. The percentages of children reared in poverty declined during the 1990s, accounting perhaps for the modest educational gains during that decade on national tests. The poverty rate of black children fell from more than 46 percent to under 30 percent during Bill Clinton’s presidency but since then, owing to meaner federal policies, it has climbed steadily. NCLB supplies no antidote.

The solutions lie mainly outside the schools, but different school reforms could help. The government could make NCLB’s all-children mandate meaningful by giving children in poor schools real opportunities to learn by actually giving them the “highly qualified teachers” that NCLB mandates, along with the buildings, materials and personal things that a child needs to learn. Threats and reprisals do not produce the good teachers.

The Arkansas legislature, bless its heart, did far more than the federal sponsors of the law by appropriating large sums of money this year for the first time for pre-kindergarten programs for poor children, although we cannot be sure that it will be the “quality” service that the law promises.

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