Published Online: June 2, 2010

Fixing NCLB: How Testing Hurts Disadvantaged Kids

I’ve been part of a group of determined teachers from around the nation working to engage in direct discussions with the Obama administration about its blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known for the past decade as No Child Left Behind). Some of us thought it might be a good time to write about issues related to the Blueprint, and why we think seeking the expertise of successful teachers might help lawmakers develop better policies.

One of the first points identified by teachers as a problem is that the proposed plan continues to place an emphasis on high-stakes accountability through standardized test scores. What's wrong with a big focus on test scores? Don't we need to know how students are performing?

I'm going to revisit a past post from my blog TeachMoore as I begin to answer. Here’s what I wrote:

I recently had opportunity to talk with some parents, including some who were my former students. One of the most profound and disturbing discussions was with a young mother I'll call Debra. Fourteen years ago, Debra had been in my high school English class, and managed to graduate just a few days before her daughter was born. Debra's life, which had never been easy, took a deeply tragic turn five years ago when that child was murdered.

Spotlight on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

Sitting next to me at the health program, we watched her other child, 9-year-old Donnell, sit passively through what was otherwise a lively group discussion. She shared with me her concerns that he was growing increasingly frustrated with school, and more and more withdrawn. Donnell had serious learning disabilities that affected his language and reading skills. According to Debra, his Individual Education Plan and previous tests indicated that he could handle the equivalent of 1st, maybe 2nd grade work. But the newly enacted changes in special education placement and testing to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress guidelines required that he be moved to an inclusion setting and tested with the 4th graders. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to talk with the special education staff, even the superintendent, along with some other concerned mothers of special needs children, about giving him a more gradual transition.

"I don't understand," she said nearly in tears, "why they insist on giving him work and a test that they know he's not ready for yet? He thinks he is stupid, and he's ready to give up on school," at 9 years old.

She's been to the school 15 times this year already. His new teacher, with an already overcrowded classroom, is struggling to give Donnell the extra help he needs while not neglecting the others. Both women are frustrated and angry with the system.

Donnell's story has been repeated all over the country with tens of thousands of special-needs students. The focus on test scores and the over-reliance on them to determine student learning has led to this widespread abuse.

Under the current and proposed federal requirements, we have used test scores to justify punishing schools and students who have been chronic underperformers before we took the necessary steps to correct the profoundly unequal learning conditions that have been created within those schools. Case in point: My own children attended the black high school in our town that had no science labs (although we parents are charged an annual lab fee). Their teachers resorted to buying lab kits out of their own pockets with which they could at least demonstrate the principles for the students to watch. Even so, my children had to take the same state biology test as their classmates at the predominantly white high school across town, which had a fully stocked and usable science lab. I'm not talking about the 1950s here; this is 21st-century inequity: one district, same leadership, responsible for providing equal opportunities to all students. Guess which school's students performed better overall on the state test? But which school might be punished for low performance by having its funding cut even more? Which teachers are in danger of losing their jobs?

It's a harsh reality that some students in this country receive a rich, challenging curriculum that allows them to perform consistently well on tests and other evaluations, while other children—particularly the children of the poor—are more often in schools focused on control and remediation. Ironically, many of those who insist on forcing teachers and students to spend inordinate amounts of time drilling basic skills believe they are helping "close the achievement gap." In fact, they may actually be making it wider. Lest we forget, the purpose of all this testing is to determine what students have actually learned. The goal of education is not to produce great test takers, but to prepare tomorrow's citizens.

One of my TLN colleagues, David B. Cohen, who teaches at the upscale Palo Alto High School in northern California, summed it up nicely:

What I wish people would realize is that "good" schools with high test scores don't think of their instruction as some kind of reward for the test scores. They don't focus on basic skills and then suddenly reach a point where they...develop deeper knowledge, enrich learning, engage students' interests, etc. It's not basics and then enrichment. The basics can be addressed more covertly, more authentically, and more effectively, when those skills are developed in a meaningful and motivational context. That type of environment shouldn't be the exception, the unearned privilege of the children of privileged parents, and those lucky enough to attend schools that test well. That type of education is the birthright of every child.

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