In Defense of No Child Left Behind and in Criticism of Those Who Manipulate its Intent
Few things scare me more than zombies (I promise this has a point so please stick with the article). I know they are not real, but even the thought of a human being coming back from the dead with the sole purpose of hunting the living has kept me awake, clutching my crucifix necklace, many a night.
Now knowing my somewhat embarrassing but very real fear of zombies, it should come as no surprise that the new popularity of the zombie archetype in American pop culture confuses me. I am baffled by the appeal. It makes no sense that millions of people would read about, watch television on and even dress up as this terrifying figure. Maybe we are all preparing ourselves for some type of apocalypse in the most comfortable way possible. Maybe we are all just practicing to one-day hide our fears and weaknesses by wearing masks of comfort when witnessing the most gruesome of things.
Similar to the new popularity of zombies, I am bewildered by the unintended and unnecessary consequences of No Child Left Behind, rampant throughout our nation’s public school systems. Standardized tests have become the end-all-be all of “education,” particularly for low-performing schools and districts. Now being held accountable for job performance, teachers fear them even more than I fear zombies. Dominating public education, districts, administrators, students and educators prepare all year for these tests, with the same urgency one would utilize to prepare for an impending zombie apocalypse.
This urgency could be an outstanding improvement for public education if the focus was on bringing students to grade level performance by the conclusion of the academic year. But this is not the focus in our nation’s most in-need schools. Instead, educators and school and district leaders are seeking to control and manipulate their students standardized test scores by any means. As an inner city educator, I can say with confidence that the ends do not justify the means in this scenario. Even Machiavelli would agree with me on this one.
Cheating amongst teachers is widespread, children who are not assured “passers” are unnecessarily put in special education programs that affect diploma status and eligibility for admittance into four-year colleges, so they will not negatively effect the net passing rates, and districts have created year long curriculums solely focused on what they believe will be on the standardized tests. Perhaps the worse unintended consequence is that educators are willingly leaving their classrooms on school days, to protest the fact they are being held accountable. This phenomenon is stranger than the new found popularity of zombies, as logic would assume a fear of accountability would prompt one to work even harder, not take a day off.
The above are side effects of NCLB prompted by an attempted control over statistics of student performance originally designed to improve our nation’s public schools. A lack of integrity created by those who would rather manipulate the process than actually teach our nation’s most in-need students.
This is not the outcome NCLB – one of the only significant bipartisan pieces of legislation passed (91 – 8 in the Senate, 384 – 45 in The House) during the 21st century that gave socioeconomically disadvantaged students school choice, has turned several continuously poor performing schools into charter schools, and has increased planned funding for failing schools1 – intended. It seems Madison was right; mankind is not composed of angels.
I could provide you with pages of statistics above the positive effects of NCLB– incentives for schools that show improvement with students with disabilities and academic improvements in 43 states and the District of Columbia to name a few1 – and its unintended, unnecessary negative consequences. I would rather, however, provide a radical perspective on the issue at hand, that being the viewpoint of a student actually affected by the attempts of failing schools and districts to control measures of accountability. Lets call this student Lynda. Lynda has grown-up in a socioeconomically disadvantaged community and attends a high school that has been rated as “academically unacceptable” for six of the past seven years. Her school district boasts the same low-level rating.
Lynda is sleeping, but today I am bound from waking her. To be honest, even if I could wake her, I probably wouldn’t. For today begins the first of forty days of testing. Eight straight hours, an entire school day, spent sitting in a room with covered walls, no books, no cell phone, no computer; nothing to entertain anyone but counting the seconds between when the 1970s air conditioner turns off and when it turns back on, making a booming noise that wakes Lynda only momentarily. It has been two hours since the untimed practice test’s beginning and Lynda still has not filled in a single bubble on the Scantron, now spotted with her slumber-produced drool. Wish I could sleep like that at night.
This year, Lynda will spend between four and five school days taking actual state-standardized tests, meaning the one’s that determine her graduation eligibility, her diploma status and her school’s, teacher’s and district’s positive or negative classification. The test designed to measure success and make improvements where necessary. On these days, Lynda’s entire school will be shutdown; no one will enter or leave the building until every bubble is filled, approximately fifty per student. These tests, which provide valuable student data and hold educators accountable, are not the problem. The problem lies in how failing schools and lackluster districts have decided to prepare for the standardized measures of accountability.
To prepare for the actual tests, Lynda will spend an additional four to five weeks of the academic year, taking practice tests. On these exciting days, Lynda’s school will go into “rehearsal lock down mode” and she will spend an entire school day taking old versions of the tests she will take at the end of the year; a grand total of between thirty and forty days of practice testing. Its like the public school version of Lent, only for this forty-day stretch, the thing given up is useful knowledge.
Not counting absences, Lynda will spend about 180 days at school. When taking into consideration days spent testing, either the practice type or the real deal, this leaves Lynda with between 150 and 155 days spent actually learning; one-sixth of her education stripped away every year. But it gets worse.
Since standardized testing is a major consideration for ranking a school as either meeting or not meeting state and federal expectations, public schools will shut down subject based learning for review days. Lynda will loose about ten days of her academic year on these days, “learning” by being taught how to fill in the correct bubble through tricks and robotic memorization. If the answer seems too strong it is wrong, if it is offensive it is wrong, remember if the question mentions the word diplomacy the answer is Jefferson, if it mentions army or president it is Washington.
At this point, Lynda is left with 140 days on the low end, and 145 days on the high end, of actual learning per year. Cutting down days of learning was not the point of NCLB. Rather, this is an example of school and district leaders trying their best to forge test results, thereby, putting students second and their own reputations first. We cannot move forward as a nation if this continues to happen.
Continuing the disturbing trend, all of Lynda’s educators who teach a tested subject area or grade level will be pulled from their classrooms about five times per academic year, in order to attend a training on how to teach the test to their students. On these days, Lynda will be taught overseen by a substitute teacher, probably completing worksheets or making up missing work. This subtracts another five days from Lynda’s chance at learning high-order concepts.
At this point, Lynda will, at best, have 140 days to learn beyond that of filling in bubbles on a test, which, depending on the state, may only measure recall knowledge and lack any measure of critical thinking, creativity or real-world numeracy. States are beginning to raise the rigor of their tests – a step in the right direction – but many still only measure low-level knowledge – raising another question: why can’t our students pass low rigor tests?
Lets keep subtracting days of learning, while we are at it.
Due to a zombie apocalypse like fear of being fired for a low passing rate, some of Lynda’s teachers will spend a great deal of their instructional time during these remaining 140 days, only teaching her material assumed applicable to the state standardized test. Some of Lynda’s teachers will even spend the entire year just teaching to the test, removing unnecessary skills such as oral communication, writing and debate from their curriculum. If something is not needed for a student to reach the state set passing standard on the end of the year test, it is pushed aside. Clearly, such skills are not important.
The most ironic thing about districts and educators teaching to the test is that studies show it does not work; not too mention, that those who teach to a test completely miss the point of the outcomes measured by them.
Take a case study in the book Understanding by Design, which highlighted the fact that two-thirds of eight grade students taking a standardized test (the NAEP) in New York and Michigan incorrectly answered problems that required use of the Pythagorean theorem. Why? It was determined that educators were teaching their students low-order terms and items they thought would be measured on the test. Students answered such questions correctly but missed high-order thinking questions, particularly, those that involved factors such as the Pythagorean theorem. In short, high-order thinking was not taught in the classroom in an attempt to manipulate test scores and this resulted in lower test scores, overall.
Perhaps, if time in the classroom was spent teaching beyond the test and not constantly trying to assume what will be on it, accountability would not be an issue. More importantly, students across the board would begin learning what they need to be at grade-level and what they need to keep our nation competitive in a global market.
If this unfortunate trend continues, Lynda and students like her will be not be taught. They will be trained. During the course of the year, Lynda will be transformed into that I fear most, a zombie, whose only purpose is to fill in the passing number of the correct bubbles on each of her standardized tests, so her teachers can keep their jobs, her school can stay open and her district can claim it is meeting the necessary standards. It is no wonder Lynda is asleep, dreaming away her high school education.
So what now? Obviously, we need something to measure public school performance, but the manipulation and attempted control of standardized testing scores has gone too far. At its core, standardized testing and accountability are great factors for improving public education. They measure progress and allow those in charge to determine which schools are meeting expectations and which ones need support. But when the sole purpose of a child’s education is manipulated to the point of filling in a bubble, we enhance the education crisis.
The central question here is: how do we measure student success rates and separate high performing schools from low performing institutions, ineffective teachers from effective educators, without making that which measures them the primary focus? We can raise standards and make tests more rigorous, but in a few years, once the districts have figured out how to anticipate the tests, we will be right back where we started.
I advocate for a more comprehensive evaluation system to measure teacher, school and district effectiveness. Some combined ranking of test scores, improvement on test scores, student surveys (as researched and promoted by the Gate’s Foundation), professionalism, willingness of teachers and administrators to seek higher degrees and third-party observation and reflection. This system of evaluation could articulate a clearer message of what is really going on in a classroom and within a school or district. But I am interested in what you have to say. How do we ensure that Lynda’s performance is accurately measured without turning her into a zombie, whose sole purpose is filling in a bubble? How do we ensure Lynda’s school day dreams are not more thought provoking than her classroom instruction?
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design, 2nd Edition. ASCD. p. 42–43