NCLB Guestblogging

Kevin Carey did a nice job unpacking the pretty glaring problems with Monday’s WaPo op-ed on No Child Left Behind. Below is a guest post from Robin Chait, she’s a DC-based education policy consultant, that gets into the issue more. Want to respond, you can find Robin at this email.

Robin Chait:

In Monday’s Washington Post, David Keyes, a second-grade teacher in Silver Spring, criticized what he sees as the weaknesses of NCLB’s focus on testing. He claims the legislation’s focus on testing forces high-poverty, high-minority schools to emphasize basic skills and test preparation, while other schools whose students generally do well on standardized assessments have the freedom to teach higher level thinking skills. “Its (NCLB’s) pressure to raise test scores has caused many schools to give poor and minority students an impoverished education that focuses primarily on basic skills” says Keyes.

Ed Sector’s Kevin Carey criticizes his argument here. I agree with Carey that blaming NCLB for perpetuating an unequal educational system is unfair. But I do think Keyes raises some important points about the need to re-think how NCLB is structured in order to incentivize high quality instruction.

NCLB hasn’t done enough to help states and districts improve the performance of struggling students and schools. At the same time it has placed greater emphasis on standardized assessments. Standards and high stakes assessments without sufficient help for struggling schools and students are likely to lead to negative unintended consequences. And supplemental educational services and school choice provisions are not enough to meet the fundamental problems of failing schools.

One might infer from Keyes’ argument that we should get rid of NCLB’s requirement for annual, standardized testing. Yet it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Standardized assessment provides an important source of information to schools, districts, and states about the performance of students, particularly the performance of students in specific subgroups. They are the only tool states have for looking at performance across schools and districts and identifying those that are struggling. The assessments have also played an important role in increasing attention and focus on improving the performance of disadvantaged students.

Keyes also fails to address the reality that students need basic skills to do more advanced work. For instance, in the area of reading, students will not be able to comprehend anything they read if they aren’t fluent readers. They need instruction in decoding or sounding out words, if they don’t already have these skills. This instruction can be provided concurrently with instruction in comprehension skills and other higher-level thinking skills, but it still needs to happen. And as E.D. Hirsch frequently points out , a rich curriculum is a predicate for learning to read well in the first place. The challenge for schools that teach high poverty children is how to provide this dual track of basic skills and higher order thinking skills instruction.

As a third-grade teacher in DC Public Schools, I had three different principals in two and a half years. The best of the three told us that good instruction was the best preparation for tests and that we should incorporate a little bit of test preparation at the end of each unit. The worst of the three wanted us to have a half hour of test preparation every day and increased the time to an hour a day a couple of months before the test.

So obviously, there are schools and districts that respond to NCLB in negative ways. They emphasize test preparation and drill and kill instruction to improve test scores for “bubble” students–students who are on the verge of meeting standards. There are also schools and districts that acknowledge NCLB accountability, treat standardized testing as one measure of students’ learning, and focus on improving the quality of curriculum and instruction in order to improve learning for all students. So the challenge for NCLB reauthorizers in Congress is how to draft legislation that encourages the latter approach without sacrificing the law’s vital emphasis on equity for disadvantaged youngsters.

Robin Chait is an education policy consultant based in Washington, D.C.

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