Friday, April 14, 2006

The latest dirt on education

I had to write an argumentative essay for my portfolio I must submit for admission into teacher certification. This portfolio only needs three to four writing samples for the department to determine, I guess, if you have enough writing ability and experience to be an English teacher. I chose to include my 2003 collection of short stories, "Thru," the article I wrote for the Beloit Daily News that gave me a front-page above-the-fold byline credit on Sept. 12, 2001, and an academic essay I wrote last semester for my Victorian prose class.

I decided to focus my argumentative essay on the No Child Left Behind Act because most educators I talk to have strong feelings either for or against (mostly against) the legislation, and I realized I don't know much about it. Also, I substitute taught recently for many teachers that needed the time off to prepare themselves and selected special needs students for the ISAT tests, so I got to see firsthand what goes into test preparation.

Here's the essay. Please comment.

Greg Locascio
Argumentative essay

“No Child Left Behind” is a Bureaucratic Nightmare

The “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act is a sweeping education reform act proposed by President Bush shortly after his first election into office and voted into law by Congress in the fall of 2001. The legislation is a revision and reauthorization of President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Key hallmarks of NCLB include annual standardized tests for all students grade three through 8 and corrective action against schools and districts that fail to make federally-mandated annual yearly progress (AYP), including transfer vouchers out of underperforming schools and government takeover of chronically failing schools.
The goals of NCLB are noble and include increasing educational standards for all districts, identifying underperforming schools and implementing school improvement plans to get them up to a federal standard, an increased focus on reading and math education, and giving parents a greater choice about where to send their children to school. But NCLB is fundamentally flawed because of its reliance on comprehensive testing. This reliance creates a bureaucratic nightmare for educators, who are now forced to veer away from educating in favor of test preparation. Reliance on testing gives a mere snapshot of a school’s performance, is racially and culturally biased, and is rife with a history of errors. Punishment for schools that fail to make AYP is too severe and sets unrealistic goals for underperforming schools and districts.
According to a U.S. Department of Education (USDE) press release, NCLB “focuses on teaching methods that have been proven by research to work. There will be no more experimenting on children with educational fads.” How can NCLB focus on “teaching methods” when the primary method of assessment of a school’s performance is reliance on standardized testing? If the USDE wanted to focus on teaching methods, it would implement some mechanism of oversight that, in addition to testing, monitored teacher and student performance day to day in the classroom. Standardized tests do not give an accurate picture of what is being taught in America’s schools. When administered correctly, which isn’t always the case, they can only provide a brief look at what student’s knew on a particular day in a particular classroom setting. A school devoted solely to increasing its standardized test scores becomes an institution devoted to flash cards and rote memorization, not learning or any semblance of a well-rounded education.
NCLB mandates schools adopt School Improvement Plans (SIP), based on how well the school performs on these standardized tests from year to year. Schools face sanctions, forced tutoring, or even federal overhaul, including replacement of all the management and school staff, if they fail to make adequate AYP. According to an article published by Fair Test: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the rigid AYP formula is a “false accountability system based on testing and punishing… Thus, the weaknesses of standardized exams – their cultural biases and their failure to measure higher order thinking – are reinforced by strict penalties.” The AYP formula virtually guarantees failure for most schools, especially those in high poverty districts that don’t have the money or the resources to implement the dramatic changes necessary to conform to the standard.
Standardized testing is not a reliable way to gauge student performance. It is difficult to administer to students with learning disabilities and English language learners, and has a history of cultural and racial bias. In addition to these problems, test scoring is often error-prone. In 1999, two years before the implementation of NCLB, nearly 9,000 New York City school children were mistakenly sent to summer school because of a programming error in grading a comprehensive test administered by CTB/McGraw-Hill. From a May 21, 2001, New York Times article about the debacle: “[S]chool districts lack the ability to uncover serious testing errors on their own, and must rely on the testing companies to do so.” In 1999 New York City schools, for the first time, relied solely on CTB’s test scores to determine whether or not elementary school children needed to attend summer school. “Making such decisions based on a single test score violates the testing industry’s standards, and both CTB and city school officials agree that the company advised the city against putting such a premium on its test,” the article said.
NCLB puts a premium on a single test score, except instead of being isolated to a city, this premium, advised against by the very same industry that administers the tests, is writ large and has far-reaching effects on how schools are run, funded, and staffed. Districts and states now employ loopholes to work around this premium. In Illinois, the state relaxed testing standards in order for more schools to reach federal testing goals. According to a November 9, 2005, Chicago Sun-Times article, “27.1 percent of [Illinois] schools failed to meet federal testing targets. But after removing the 227 schools that benefited from the softer standards, that jumps to 33.1 percent.” The article says the softened standards were implemented to make it easier for limited English and special needs students to pass. Illinois is not the only state to request and be granted softened standards by USDE.
NCLB and its focus on standardized testing is a flawed system, albeit with noble goals. Any federal education standard should include standardized testing, but only in a broader framework of assessment. If we really want to rely solely on standardized testing, the government should force districts to test students monthly and create spreadsheets of progress from month to month. The slippery slope to test preparation would then be complete. Teachers could be absolved of grading duties. The government could provide a teaching kit, per grade level, that can be done online or CD-ROM, and the teacher’s role could change to “technology facilitator.” Current NCLB legislation and its reliance on standardized tests already creates this type of scenario, at least in the weeks leading up to testing.

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