The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Critics Say No Child Left Behind Report Misses Real Problems

by Livia Gershon

An ‘elite’ commission that has reviewed President Bush’s keystone education policy avoided difficult issues and has recommended an expansion of standardized testing.

Mar. 6, 2007 – This year, Jevon Cochran’s English class has been "postponed." Instead of the usual mix of reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary lessons and discussion, Cochran, a junior at Lewis Cass Technical High School in Detroit, said he and his classmates are now drilling for the ACT exam. They must take the national scholastic test as part of Michigan’s effort to evaluate students and schools under federal standards passed in 2001. That, he said, has meant a change in the classroom atmosphere.

In past years, Cochran said, "while we would be reading these novels and stories and whatnot, the teachers would try to get us to become better critical thinkers by getting us to write essays and getting us to talk about what we read in class and how it pertains to things in life that we go through today. Now we’re learning just a bunch of crap that’s going to be on the ACT."

Later this year, Congress will consider reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). When it does, the chairs of the House and Senate education committees have said that their evaluation of the program will be guided by a report released last month by the Commission on No Child Left Behind, an independent group that evaluated the law’s effects over the past year.

But critics say that in creating its report, "Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation’s Children," the Commission ignored the perspectives of students like Cochran as well as parents and educators who see problems with the law.

“The Commission brought together a group of like-minded people who believe that the top-down, sanction-based system is the way to improvement.”

The controversial No Child Left Behind Act is the keystone of the Bush administration’s education policy. Supporters argue that it is a tool for improving education and moving toward educational equality for students of all racial and economic backgrounds. The law requires schools to meet certain goals each year, based largely on students’ scores on tests like the ACT. Those schools that do not do so must take specifically mandated steps that may involve providing tutors, replacing school staff, restructuring or even privatizing the school.

Educators, students and parents who oppose the law argue that it is too reliant on standardized tests and too punitive for school districts with poor test scores. Some state and local school leaders also complain that the federal government does not provide enough funding to implement the law’s requirements.

The Commission, chaired by former US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, essentially concluded that No Child Left Behind is moving schools in the right direction, but needs to be applied more forcefully. The report recommends creating a more-uniform national standard for the tests required by law, adding a new 12th-grade test, and evaluating individual teachers and principals in part based on their students’ performance on the tests.

The report does not question the value of standardized tests.

"If anything, their recommendations would intensify the role of testing," said Robert Schaeffer, the public-education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), a nonprofit group that promotes changes in the use of standardized testing. "It’s more of the same bad thing."

The Commission, which is housed at the Aspen Institute, was launched with financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and six other private foundations. Its thirteen members are mostly academics and education officials, though about half of them worked as classroom teachers at some point in their careers. In the course of its study of the law, the Commission held a series of hearings across the country, where they heard almost exclusively from high-level education, government, union and business leaders.

Schaeffer argues that the Commission’s conclusions are not surprising, given the way the body was formed.

"It was a very elitist operation in which they spent very little time talking to actual practitioners, the people on the ground dealing with the effects of No Child Left Behind every day," he said.

Jennifer Adams, the Commission’s communications director, argued that the hearings reflect only part of the Commission’s efforts. It also gathered data by visiting schools, seeking comments from the public through its website, and holding round-table discussions with teachers, parents, community leaders and education officials on a number of specific topics.

Still, Adams acknowledged to The NewStandard, the commissioners primarily sought suggestions on how to reach the law’s stated goals, rather than questioning No Child Left Behind’s overall framework. "The mission that we were given was to try to give recommendations to improve this law, not to get rid of the law," she said.

Cochran said he would like to see his classes focus more on developing critical thinking skills and helping individual students figure out what learning techniques work best for them.

In particular, the report does not question the value of standardized tests, probably the most-widely criticized of NCLB’s features. The Commission’s summary of its hearing on the use of standardized tests begins with the statement, "There is broad agreement that testing plays a critical role in education reform by giving educators, administrators and the public a means to understand how schools and students are performing."

But critics like Cochran say emphasizing standardized tests encourages teachers to focus on skills that are ultimately not very useful to students.

"The tests are supposed to measure how good you would do in college, and I don’t see how," said Cochran, who is a member of By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a civil rights coalition that works to defend affirmative action and immigrant rights. "For instance... [in a lesson] on the English section of the test, there was this whole section on where you have to place semicolons in sentences. I don’t see how learning about where you place semicolons is going to help you better prepare yourself for college."

Cochran said he would like to see his classes focus more on developing critical thinking skills and helping individual students figure out what learning techniques work best for them.

Another BAMN member, Christopher Sutton, a senior at Murray Wright High School in Detroit, said he notices teachers becoming dispirited and showing less creativity in their teaching when they are preparing students for a standardized test: "It’s like, ‘Okay, you all know what this is, you already know what we’re preparing for, it’s boring, I know, I’m sorry, but I have to go over this information because it’s mandated by the district.’"

Another flaw some critics see in the report is that its discussion of funding is almost completely limited to making recommendations on how to spend money that is already allocated for education.

Caprice Taylor-Mendez, the director of the Boston Parents Organizing Network (BPON), an advocacy group for parents of Boston public-school students, said that even if test-based evaluations could determine which schools are having trouble, what is really needed is more funding to address the problems. "What does assessment do but flag problem areas?" she said. "Then where is the support?"

The report does suggest that districts provide better assistance to schools that have poor test results, but it does not encourage the federal government to provide money to help them.

"We can’t offer a recommendation on [funding levels] because ultimately it lies in the hands of Congress," said Adams, the Commission’s spokesperson. "How much is enough -- we can’t give a recommendation on this."

Lucia Santana, an organizer with BPON and parent of six children who have gone through the Boston school system, said her children felt "traumatized" when they were required to take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. She said they did not feel their school had prepared them adequately for the high-stakes exams, and that schools must reduce their class sizes to teach students effectively.

"If we continue with No Child Left Behind," she said, "I want to see more resources, more money for the school department."

The report does recommend a minor increase in federal education funding, but it is for education research and state data systems, not individual schools’ budgets.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Livia Gershon is a contributing journalist.