No Child Left Behind: Who's Accountable? (page 7)
To many federal legislators, No Child Left Behind is like the cavalry sent to rescue the American educational system. To many teachers, the federal mandate is simply another shackle, more paperwork and red tape, as they try to stimulate and expand the minds of the young. But to many involved in educational research, No Child Left Behind is akin to the leg of an elephant. The information they are gathering about that leg is helpful and important, but it is also becoming increasingly clear that the animal resting on the appendage is far more gargantuan and complex than originally imagined. Still, many look forward to embarking on a quest, albeit imperfect and unpredictable, to unravel the mysteries of the beast.
Certainly, experts and non-experts across the nation do not dispute that the American system of education is not where it needs to be. Right now, for example, the United States is tied with Zimbabwe for achievement in 8th grade mathematics. Today, over 80 percent of African American and Latino 8th graders say they plan to attend a two- or four-year college. Yet, once there, many are not prepared for a rigorous post-secondary education. Between 40 and 60 percent of college students need remedial work to catch up, and between 25 and 50 percent of these students drop out after their first year. These data imply that although the existing K–12 system is graduating students, it is not necessarily preparing them for life beyond high school.
The Bush Administration’s answer to this conundrum has been to rigidly implement the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Enacted during the president’s first term, NCLB is up for reauthorization in 2007, NCLB requires that 100 percent of American public school students reach set proficiency standards in reading and math (and as of 2008, in science, as well) by the year 2014. Individual states set their own standards and all students, regardless of family income, race, ethnicity, or disability must comply. Schools whose students fail to achieve these goals face increasingly onerous penalties and sanctions.
Academicians are studying NCLB’s impact on a number of fronts. Andrew Porter, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy, believes that NCLB, while flawed, is in many ways “a beautiful thing,” because it has beamed a spotlight on the need for equity, opportunity and accountability from all schools. “You can’t just forget about your poor kids, or forget about your English language learners, or your special ed kids, or your black or Hispanic kids, or your boys. You’ve got to do well by everybody…. NCLB is better than anything we’ve ever had in the past on that score,” he says. “Think about a kid from a low-income family. NCLB makes a lot of sense if it would work. It’s saying to schools, you can’t ignore some of your kids just because they’re tough to teach.”
Also, Porter adds, deliberations have now effectively shifted from input and process to what teachers are teaching (content) and what students are accomplishing (proficiency), which he considers a healthy change from past educational reform movements. NCLB approaches the problems of the education system from the perspective of the students matriculating through it. Every public school student must take a state-designed reading and math assessment every year in grades 3 to 8, and also during one high school year, usually grade 10. These assessments hold schools accountable for student proficiency by requiring them to reach the stated benchmarks, known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Students in those schools that fail to meet AYP goals for two consecutive years are given “an escape hatch,” meaning they can choose to attend a different school. Schools that fail three years in a row are given a carrot in the form of supplemental services like funds for tutoring and enhanced teaching materials. After five years of a school’s failing to meet targets, the measures become more punitive—that school can be taken over by the state, reconstituted, restructured or shut down.
As with any nationally mandated reform that imposes sanctions for noncompliance, NCLB has generated angst and hand-wringing among those in the trenches—teachers, principals, parents and superintendents—particularly concerning issues of accountability. In fact, accountability debates crop up at every turn: Is it fair to hold schools accountable? Are these standardized tests valid measures of content and proficiency? And are sanctions the best way to address accountability issues?
Is it fair to hold schools accountable?
Porter, for one, favors school accountability, because it addresses the educational framework on a very specific local level. However, he also is pressing for “symmetry in accountability,” meaning that teachers and students should likewise be held responsible for achieving certain benchmarks. “If you’re going to have accountability for schools, then you should also have accountability for students. You don’t want schools to be left hanging out to dry for students who don’t try,” he says. “When education is successful, students, teachers and administrators roll up their sleeves and work together.” NCLB does not currently address this existing accountability gap.
By the same token, Porter is bothered that NCLB was set into motion with an endpoint that guarantees failure. The goal of having 100 percent of students achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is so unattainable that even countries with the most proficient educational systems in the world would not use that as a target.
“Demanding 100 percent proficiency is the only way we could have gotten started,” counters Stephen Elliott, Peabody professor of special education and the Dunn Family Professor of Educational and Psychological Assessment. Elliott is an international expert on testing accommodations and alternate assessments for children with disabilities. When NCLB was being formed, disability advocacy groups wanted schools to be held accountable for the inclusion of their children, realizing that every disabled child certainly would not be able to meet the national standards. Yet they also didn’t want disabled children to be given short shrift or for the bar to be set inappropriately low just so schools could slide into compliance. The resounding consensus, says Elliott, was that these groups had to advocate for 100 percent proficiency, pushing the limits so that disabled students can get the educational tools and services they need. NCLB opens a window for them to design a criterion, set expectations, see if students can reach them, and then readjust them as necessary.
“This is an experiment and we’re learning as we go,” Elliott says, acknowledging that some schools have failed to meet AYP goals because their special needs students were unable to pass the assessment tests.
Are standardized tests valid measures of content and proficiency?
Porter believes that the testing industry, which is making a mint from the explosion in demand for more standardized tests from pre-school through graduate school, is actually pretty good at what it does. The validity of the content of these tests is a less critical issue than our nation’s tendency to water down curricula and have teachers in charge of courses they were never trained to teach. Teachers, meanwhile, complain that they have to “teach to the test.”
“That’s cheating,” claims Elliott. “They should be teaching to the standards the tests are aligned to. Curriculum, testing and standards are all being aligned, which is the backbone of the accountability issue. The finger-wagging should be on the instruction. Our tests today are far better than they were a decade ago because of this legislation.”
Ironically, two of the biggest drivers forcing the refinement of standardized testing are children with disabilities and low-income gifted students. Because special needs children are included in AYP, researchers have been studying which kinds of multiplechoice questions, for example, are best at illuminating a child’s mastery of content without being skewed by that child’s decision-making and reading challenges. Most standard multiple-choice tests give the taker four or five options; but according to Michael Rodriguez of the University of Minnesota (Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, Summer 2005), the best format for truly gauging knowledge is one that presents three multiple-choice options. It turns out that this format is the best determinant of content mastery for non-disabled students, as well.
Elliott and his colleagues have also been examining testing accommodations and their influence on the scores of students with special needs. They discovered some unsettling data. As expected, children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) tested better when given special accommodations, such as private settings, reading support and extra time. However, children with no perceived special needs also scored higher on standardized tests when given these same accommodations. Surprisingly, the highest functioning children were the only ones who actually used the extra time they’d been given. But all groups of students reported feeling a psychological edge and believed they performed better with the opportunity to have extra time if they needed it.
For low-income, minority and English-language learners, NCLB has yanked the veil off the ever pervasive “achievement gap” in American education. Simply put, affluent children are receiving a better public education than those whose families are struggling. After studying this dilemma for years, Porter and others have found that the achievement gap between preschoolers who come from wealthy families versus those from impoverished families is enormous, as big as it will ever be—before these children ever go to school.
Once they reach school age, the gap does not increase during the school year. Minority and poor youngsters make achievement gains parallel to their more affluent peers. Unfortunately, says Porter, “Minority and poor kids lose more achievement in the summer than do white and more affluent kids. All the spread in the achievement gap happens when they’re not in school in the summer time.”
These two factors—that the achievement gap is greatest among preschoolers and that the gap widens every summer while children are not in school—means that schools are being asked to fix a societal problem that extends beyond the confines of the classroom. Donna Y. Ford, Betts Professor of Education and Human Development in the department of special education, and Gilman W. Whiting, director of Vanderbilt African American Diaspora Studies, have initiated the Vanderbilt Achievement Gap Project to bring about large-scale change by addressing contributing factors on a local level. Ford believes that a major obstacle to closing the achievement gap is that schools that serve large numbers of underprivileged children are not offering them the kinds of rigorous curricula that will enable them to excel. In other words, expectations for disadvantaged populations have been set too low.
Ford says, “If we don’t put more poor kids in gifted programs in K–6, how are we going to get them into AP classes in high school? They’ve had nine years of not being challenged, so how can they survive? The ability is there and the potential is there, if given the opportunity.”
The data support her argument. Researchers from the private Center for Performance Assessment identified schools in which 90 percent of the students are poor, 90 percent are members of ethnic minority groups, and 90 percent also meet high academic standards. Some of the common characteristics these schools share include a strong focus on academic achievement and frequent assessment of student progress with multiple opportunities for improvement (Challenge Journal: The Journal of the Annenberg Challenge, Winter 2001/02).
One approach for more accurately evaluating achievement, again being driven by advocates of students with disabilities, is to offer more formative assessments. Rather than giving students a single “do or- die” test at the end of the school year to measure their progress, Elliott and others are promoting the idea of delivering shorter, lower stakes assessments, delivered two or three times during the school year. They’re finding that good formative tests are predictive of how proficient students will be by the end of the year.
Elliott explains, “The lowest functioning kids can make progress, even if they may never be proficient.”
“Across the nation, one of the fastest spreading reforms is interim assessment,” Porter says. “The upside to interim assessment is that teachers find out how well students are performing all along. The downside is what do you do when you find out they’re not doing so well? Nobody’s answering that question.”
In 2005, NCLB asked states to compete for the opportunity to replace AYP with improved performance plans, considered by some researchers to be a superior index of proficiency, but, out of all the submissions, only North Carolina and Tennessee had the models and infrastructure to execute such a plan. “One of the most fragile areas of NCLB is the ability of states to manage the data,” Elliott says. “Many statistical experts are going to work in the lower pressure, higher paying testing industry. So we’re leaving people in the states who don’t have the technical skills to manage the information.”
One solution to this conundrum is to completely nationalize NCLB assessments, both in terms of content and proficiency. Porter is an avid proponent of this idea. Right now, each state has invested in its own content standards for math and reading. Unfortunately, a child from, say, Colorado, who moves to a new school in Georgia, may suddenly face an entirely different curriculum in the same school year. Concentrating all the energy that is now being used to develop materials, standards and assessments for 50 different states into the creation of one voluntary national standard, says Porter, “would mean enormous efficiency and would undoubtedly result in tremendous improvements in quality. If you’re sinking all your resources into building one really great test, you can do a great job.”
While national content standards may receive some level of support, Porter is also advocating for voluntary national proficiency standards, considered a less popular option. Right now, there are far-flung variances between states in benchmarks for achievement, and in most cases, a larger percentage of students reach proficiency on the state tests than on a comparable nationwide instrument, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
“In some states, the difference is enormous,” Porter says, “like the difference between 30 percent and 90 percent.”
Are sanctions the best way to address accountability issues?
In its current form, one of NCLB’s most glaring glitches is its inability to impose the kinds of sanctions that result in student achievement. After a school fails for three consecutive years, students are supposed to receive the benefits of tutoring and supplemental services.
“Supplemental services haven’t worked as well as we hoped they would,” Porter says. Some districts aren’t receiving the funding for these services in time to help the students, but more crucially, schools don’t know what services they need until after their students have taken and failed the AYP assessment. So, they are faced with constantly moving targets.
Once a school misses its benchmarks two years in a row, students are allowed to transfer to schools that have not been identified as needing improvement. This has not panned out for a variety of reasons, Porter says. First, the better performing schools don’t want to risk their AYP status by accepting an influx of students who’ve failed to meet the benchmarks. Second, in some cases, every school in the district is failing to reach NCLB guidelines. The sanction becomes irrelevant, because students have no place to go. Finally, poor and non-English speaking parents may find the logistics of transferring their children out of a neighborhood school to be too overwhelming to be worth the ordeal.
According to Ford, the solution will not be a band-aid or a simple promise to move kids to a new school. Instead it will require an intrinsic, primordial transformation across the education network. “If you move a child from an economically disadvantaged background and from a school that isn’t rigorous into a school with a more rigorous curriculum, that child is going to need a lot of support not just to catch up, but to keep up,” she says. “That’s an equity issue. You can’t just put children in a new school to frustrate them and make them fail. You have to believe in them and support them.”
Now that NCLB is entering its first phase of reconstituting low-performing schools, the Bush administration is pushing to have private school vouchers added to the law, a proposal opposed by the National Education Association and others involved in collective-bargaining agreements.
The next wave will be NCLB’s effect on higher education.
Today, the achievement gap between underserved children and children of privilege stands at a full standard deviation, which in raw terms means that vast numbers of kids are undereducated. Closing that gap by one standard deviation would, for example, bring a child at the 50th percentile up to the 84th percentile, a phenomenal gain. Porter contends that such a jump can happen if America improves the quality of its teaching.
“If we could get every kid to have a good teacher every year and if the effects of having a good teacher had a shelf life and were cumulative, it wouldn’t take much of a change per year to add up to a standard deviation,” he says. “We’ve got 12 years. If students could move up a tenth of a standard deviation every year, we’d get up to 1.2 standard deviations.”
The onus, says Ford, is on the nation’s universities to step up and prepare highly qualified teachers with high expectations who will enter the field and teach our children. To accomplish that, she thinks universities should revamp their courses so that student teachers start their practica earlier in college and spend more of their training out in the field gaining experience in a range of educational settings.
For all its many flaws and pitfalls, Porter, Elliott and Ford agree that NCLB has served the public well by forcing the conversation about education in the U.S. It has sparked new energy and directed attention to equity issues that have long been swept under the rug. NCLB obligates Americans to acknowledge the inadequacies in our school systems.
“That’s the best thing NCLB could have done,” says Ford. “The numbers are so dismal that we couldn’t ignore them any longer. NCLB showed us the numbers. That’s why I appreciate it. I don’t blame NCLB solely for the problems we’re having. It could have been any other piece of education legislation, and we still would have had to face these numbers.”
Reprinted with the permission of Peabody College. © 2006, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.
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