Monday, April 21, 2014

The Real Problem with NCLB

In an education article in the online newspaper at, I found a profound statement on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) by Anita Kulick, President & CEO, Educating Communities for Parenting. She stated:

After 12 years and billions of dollars invested, it didn’t accomplish the most important goal:

  • One hundred percent of all students in 100 percent of all public schools become proficient in reading/language arts and mathematics – by spring 2014!

It’s a pleasant surprise to find opinions such as that being touted in a big city online newspaper. For such a long time, the teacher’s voice has been one “crying in the wilderness.”  As far back as the inception of NCLB, teachers have been warning that the basic premise behind that 100% goal was impossible, but for the past dozen years no one has listened. It still holds true with Race to the Top (RttT). There are many reasons why a 100% proficiency goal is unattainable: 1) We do not live in Lake Woebegone where all children are above average; 2) There are students in our schools with profound disabilities who will never be able to show proficiency at grade level; 3) English Language Learners (ELL) are expected to show proficiency on a test in English before they are English-proficient themselves; 4) Schools did not all start from the same place where test scores are concerned and cannot all be expected to reach the same standard at the same time; 5) Standardized tests are not necessarily the best way to assess whether the student has learned what they were supposed to learn; and 6) Using test scores to evaluate teachers is a misuse of statistics, as the tests were not designed to measure teacher effectiveness, but how a student performs.
1) In fact, as measured by standardized tests, that 100% goal is definitely impossible. Lake Woebegone, after all, is a fictional utopia. All of the children cannot be above average where standardized testing is concerned. When a question on such a test is answered correctly by too many test-takers, it is stricken and replaced with something else that is supposedly harder. Statistically speaking, there will never be a standardized test where everyone scores at a proficient level because that would be considered a failed test by the test-makers, and therefore scrapped. The constructors of these tests still operate by the bell-shaped curve, where there are a few will score Advanced, many will score Proficient, most will score Basic, and a few will score Below Basic. There will always be students who are labeled Below Basic on these tests, no matter how much they know.
This puts the Portfolio Model of school “reform” in the failed NCLB category as far as I am concerned. This model takes the bottom 5% or 10% of the schools, according to the standardized tests, as dissolves them, ostensibly to allow the students to attend better schools and get rid of the “bad” teachers. This is an idea that is typically used on Wall Street when examining stock market portfolios. Mark Gleason, head of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership (PSP), and a former journalist and publisher in New York, recently addressed the AERA conference in Philadelphia where he described the Portfolio Model of reform as “dumping the losers.” It might work for Wall Street, but it won’t work for education. Think about it, every year 5% of the schools get replaced, as judged by the scores on a standardized test, not by observations of successful programs in the schools. As this goes on, there will come a time when only schools who can make Adequate Yearly Progress are left, but since there will always be a bottom 5%, some will have to be closed, despite the success of the schools. There will always be some school at the bottom, even when they are all charter schools. But by that time, the public school system will have been replaced by for-profit enterprises. The Portfolio Model is the death of the public school system. The whole premise is a disaster and will only result in the entire school district turned into charter schools, like New Orleans. The quality of New Orleans schools has not improved because the majority of its public schools were replaced by charters. The much-touted charter school renaissance has not happened. New Orleans school kids are still unenlightened; they still score at the bottom.

2) Who are the students who score at the bottom? Schools which are situated in high poverty neighborhoods and those schools with higher than average enrollments of students who need Special Ed or English Language Learners (ELL) services. Some schools in any school district have a higher than normal concentration of children with disabilities. The children could have physical limitations, mental illnesses, communication disorders, learning disabilities, or simply insufficient grasp of the English Language.
Public schools are required to educate children in all of these categories. Charter schools, not so much. In my city, in order to get a student tested for Special Ed services, their un-named disability must cause them to perform at least 2 years below grade level. Then, if they score at a certain level on the psychological test, they are  deemed in need of Special Ed services and an Individualized Educational Prescription is written. These IEPs are the foundation of the student’s instruction at school. The IEP's charge to the teacher is to instruct the kids at the level at which they are performing, not their grade level, with the idea that this will help them learn the basics they missed and eventually lead to total instruction on grade level. This is an honorable goal and is sometimes the case, but not most of the time. There have been instances where children have “seen the light” and suddenly can go at a faster pace, which will lead them out of the specialized classes. But some learning disabilities are such that they cannot be overcome, and to expect a child who is 2 or more years behind, to take a grade level test with very few accommodations and pass at a proficient level is ridiculous.
With few allowed accommodations during the tests, children with certain physical disabilities have a problem when they are testing at the computer, or when doing the writing assessment. Children with speech disorders or pervasive developmental delays are expected to take the same grade level tests as their peers without disabilities, even when their communication skills are very limited. Even students who are in the hospital with life-threatening illnesses are still expected to take the tests. One recent example of this is the child who was in hospice in Florida, unable to communicate, whose teacher had to attempt to administer the test to him because it was a state requirement and he was not exempt. Or the recent case in Oklahoma where the children's parents were killed that week and the state told the school district the children still had to take the test. Luckily, the school district's administrator realized how absurd this was and made the exemption herself, without the state's approval.

3) English Language Learners are at a special disadvantage because the state makes them take the tests after only having been in the United States for 1 year. Imagine sitting in a classroom in Korea, at age 10, where the alphabet bears no resemblance to the one you first learned, and where you have very limited skills in reading and writing in that language after only 1 year. Now imagine having to take a test that uses idioms, irony, metaphors, and double negatives and being expected to take it at your grade level, not your Korean Proficiency level. Even math tests ask tricky questions and expect you to explain your answers. These ELL kids get so frustrated and the scores indicate they are doing very poorly, when that may not be the reality at all. Often they give up fairly quickly and half-heartedly bubble in any old answers. This is one reason why some charter schools show miraculous improvement over public schools, they are more likely to have lower concentrations of special ed or ELL students, and are likely to counsel out students with emotional or behavior problems.

4) It is no surprise that students in poor neighborhoods score lower than in wealthy neighborhoods. Study after study has shown that poverty has the most detrimental effect on the academic well-being of a child. Those statistics can be proven in any large city with a disparity of income level, or any state with areas of high and low poverty levels. This is not because of the quality of the teachers or the principal or the parents, it is because high poverty puts high stressors on everyone who lives there. A recent study claimed that lack of money, poor housing, no healthcare and the resulting violence in these neighborhoods all contribute to a condition very similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Schools in these areas have to address the survival, medical and emotional issues of the students in order to begin to make a dent in the academic hole they have to climb out of. Unless you make simple, sufficient, non-traumatic living a priority, academic goals will always be extremely difficult to attain, including scoring at a proficient level on a standardized test. Schools that accept all students regardless of income, disability or language proficiency will always score lower than schools with low concentrations of special students and those in high-income areas.

5) Putting income levels, disabilities, language proficiency, and the bell-shaped curve behind us, there are much better ways to evaluate the job that the school are doing than a standardized test. Graduation rates, success rates in higher education institutions, parental satisfaction surveys, student interviews, projects, observations of teachers, principals and students, report card grades, and AP exam offerings are many of the ways a person can evaluate whether a school is a good one. Improving the graduation and higher education/job attainment success rates of students, creating and maintaining an atmosphere of collegiality, creativity, and trust between and among students, teachers, and administration may be the best method to judge a school. True learning and critical thinking can only take place in an atmosphere described above. If the atmosphere and needed social services are provided and maintained, schools should be able to begin to consistently better the academic state of their students, measuring their abilities by what they can do and show that they’ve learned.

6) Using many different measures is better than using one to determine a student’s success. Test scores only measure what the students know on one certain day out of 180 days. The tests were not designed, nor do they pretend to be able, to predict the value and effectiveness of the students’ teachers. Because they were not designed to measure the teacher’s effectiveness, they should not be used as an evaluative measure for teachers. The evaluative formulas of VAM or PVAAS are poor uses of mathematics to quantify and non-quantifiable set of characteristics. If you observe a good teacher, you will not need a formula to tell you, you will be able to figure it out right away. Same with a bad teacher. Standardized test results of students will not tell you 10% of what you can observe in a day.

A sensible use of test scores from the State College School District here in Pennsylvania can be found here -

Standardized tests are a hallmark of the NCLB and RttT acts. Theses laws initiated an emphasis on standardized testing that has mushroomed out of control. Until we put the role of standardized testing back where it belongs - only measuring what a student knows on one particular day – public schools will bear the unfortunate and damaging burden of having to prove their worth with inappropriate measures.

Get back to basics. First, fairly fund public schools, and then observe, discuss, gather evidence. Only then can you figure out whether a school and its students are doing a great job.

Still learning!

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