There is a fascinating story in this morning’s New York Times about the struggles of immigrant students who lacked formal education in their countries of origin. The New York public schools are, of course, obligated to accept and educate these students, most of whom cannot read or write in their native language, and must begin at a basic level to build the skills they need. I have seen this first-hand in the Oakland schools as well, where we get students from rural Mexico and Guatemala who may have attended little or no school prior to their arrival. They might be 14 years old, and are placed at the grade level indicated by their ages, and mixed in with other immigrant students.
This is a challenge we accept as educators, and many of our schools have been thoughtful, creating classes of newcomers, so at least these students can be with others in similar straits, and learn together. But there was a paragraph in the NYT article that jumped out at me. Professor Elaine Klein, who investigated this situation, reported that “At one Queens high school, she said, the principal eliminated two classrooms dedicated to these students. “He said, ‘Look, you have to understand my position: what this group does for my school is bring down my numbers.’ ”
This is one small indicator of the damage done by No Child Left Behind. There are students in New York City whose primary hope for a meaningful education has been destroyed because if the school hosts them, its scores will sink, and the school will be dismantled by the punitive sanctions in this law.
Another indicator can be found by looking at the phenomenon of “push-outs.” These are students who, similar to the illiterate immigrants cited above, tend to have the effect of lowering a school’s average scores. A recent report from Rice University in Texas found that schools in that state were retaining a large number of students in the 9th grade in order to make the schools look better on reports.
By analyzing data from more than 271,000 students in a large urban district the researchers call Brazos City, the study found that 60 percent of the African American students, 75 percent of Latino students and 80 percent of ESL students did not graduate within five years. The researchers found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent.
The study finds that high-stakes test-based accountability leads not to equitable educational possibilities for youth, but to avoidable losses of thousands of youth from the schools. These losses occur not as administrators cheat or fail to comply, but as they comply with the system as it was designed: that is, in the production of rising test scores for their schools. The study shows that as schools came under the accountability system, which uses test scores to rate schools and reward or discipline principals, large numbers of students left the school system. The exit of low-achieving students created the appearance of rising test scores and of narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students, thus increasing schools’ ratings.
These increased ratings led to the phenomenon promoted by then-President George W. Bush as the “Texas Miracle,” which supposedly proved that low performing schools could make dramatic increases in test scores when properly motivated.
The report also mentions another effect of NCLB. The curriculum increasingly focused on preparations for the test.
A focus group of African American honor students at Lincoln felt that their classroom experiences had changed markedly since their teachers began paying increased attention to test scores. At the time of the interview, this particular school had been targeted for possible closure the next year due to failure under the Texas and federal (NCLB) systems of accountability. This group of honors level, college-bound students were able to describe the aggravation they felt when the focus of their academic curriculum was changed to test preparation. In one student’s words, Instead of teaching us the real life things that we are going to need for college and stuff, they started zeroing in just on that test. So it makes everybody nervous, and it threw everybody off. So, like, our curriculum is thrown off, ‘cause what they originally were teaching us in the subjects, all of the sudden they switched, and then they were just zeroing into this test.
There is also an inequity in how this impacts students. According to the report:
There is evidence that the narrowing of the curriculum in response to test mandates further widens the inequities between poor and minority students and their more privileged peers. Under NCLB, more grade levels come under the high-stakes testing requirement. Gold (2007) found that this formula narrows the curriculum for minority students in urban schools, while the suburban schools retain a broader curriculum because they are not under a similar pressure to make a large increase in test scores.
I witness this in Oakland, where teachers in low-performing schools report that they do not have time to teach science and social studies, because of pressure to increase scores in math and reading.
These complaints about NCLB are not new, but the debate is all the more urgent now that we actually have a chance to end this law and make a new start in educational reform. There is a promising petition drive under way that focuses our attention on what real education reform should look like. It is called Will We Really? It proposes four key points.
1. Every child deserves a 21st Century education
2. Every community deserves an equal chance.
3. Every child deserves a well-supported teacher.
4. Every child deserves high-quality health care.
Please join me in signing on to this new start.
What do you think? Is it time leave NCLB behind?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.