School & District Management Opinion

NCLB: No Chance for Latinos and Blacks

By David Ginsburg — November 14, 2011 4 min read
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Note to readers: With legislators considering the future of NCLB, I feel compelled to share some thoughts on this from my experience as an urban teacher and school leader. So, here’s my first post on policy rather than practice:

No Chance for Latinos and Blacks. That’s what came to mind for me when I first heard about NCLB, and that’s what still comes to mind nearly ten years later.

I’m referring in particular to at-risk Latino and African American public school students like those I taught in Chicago. And though I had few students from other ethnic/racial groups, my thoughts here certainly apply to them too. But don’t get me wrong. I’ve never believed anyone intended to enact a law that would hurt many of the very children it purportedly helps. Too often, however, there’s a difference between intent and effect, and there was no doubt in my mind that NCLB would indeed leave many kids behind.

The reason for this was that NCLB’s most significant implication for state and local policymakers, school leaders, and teachers--pressure to raise Math and Reading standardized test scores--was already in place in the Chicago Public Schools when I arrived there in 1993. And it was clear to me then, as it is even clearer to me now, that many kids are hurt more than they’re helped by the prevailing responses to such pressure.

Much has been written about many of those responses including replacing rich curriculum with test prep; cutting back art, music, and foreign language; cutting back recess and physical education; cutting back social studies and science; violating test administration procedures (i.e., cheating); watering down high-stakes tests; and lowering minimum test score proficiency requirements. But here are a few less publicized responses:

cutting back writing (forget about the three Rs--in many schools there are now only two) using extrinsic motivators--from rewards to threats--to try to get students to do their best on a test deciding whether or not to expel delinquent students based on their likelihood to achieve proficient test scores providing tutoring and other individualized services for on-the-bubble students who were just short of a proficient score the previous year, while neglecting the most deficient and most advanced students preventing students from taking advanced classes if the content wouldn't be on the test investing in technology but only using it for test prep enabling students' self-defeating behavior holding teachers accountable for results without providing them the support they need to achieve those results

How do I know such responses to test score pressure have been a disservice to children? Well, the negative effects on kids of many of those responses are certainly well documented. Yet even more compelling for me is what I’ve seen and what students have said to me. Students like dozens of 8th graders who’ve been denied their chance--really their right, as civil rights leader and educator Bob Moses would say--to take Algebra in 8th grade, and thus denied their chance to enter high school on an AP track in math. The rationale for this? Algebra wouldn’t be on the test. Never mind that these students had already mastered what would be on the test. “Another year of review can’t hurt them,” I recall one administrator saying.

And students like Lakisha (not her real name) who entered my classroom more than three years below grade level in math--based on test scores and her initial performance in class. But seven months and lots of hard work later, Lakisha was performing almost at grade level--again, based on her performance in class and her score on that spring’s standardized test.

Lakisha came to my room in tears the day those scores were released. Tears of joy, I assumed, until she said, “I’m going to be held back, Coach G,” citing the fact that, despite her lofty leap, she was still ½ year behind where she should have been. “Who told you that?” I asked. “Everyone,” she replied, and then told me about a meeting before the test where school administrators said students would be retained if their scores were below grade level.

Whether students who score below grade level should in fact be held back is a topic for another discussion. What mattered in this case was that no such retention policy existed, and Lakisha was not only promoted but was assured of being promoted all along. What, then, would have compelled school leaders to use a scare tactic that caused a student to feel deflated when she should have been floating on air? Once again, pressure to raise test scores.

Do I condone this and other responses to test score pressure? No, but having experienced this pressure as both a teacher and school leader, I can relate to feeling like you have to put scores ahead of students. At the same time, I’ve worked with many urban educators--at district and charter schools alike--who’ve responded to test score pressure in ways that haven’t just kept at-risk youth from being left behind, but have helped them get ahead. Educators like Chicago’s Lake View High School Math Chair Steve Starr, his predecessor Rich Kaplan, and others whose dedication and belief in students--and courage to shun test prep in favor of college prep--have contributed to hundreds of Lake View students completing AP Calculus the past several years.

Ah, but therein lies one of the most glaring signs of NCLB missing the mark: the fact that doing what’s right for students is now seen as courageous rather than compulsory. Does this mean we should forget about school accountability? Not at all. But as long as the focus of such accountability is solely on outcomes--and not also on evidence-based, educationally sound processes for achieving those outcomes--we’ll continue to have a system where educators are overstressed and students are underserved.

In other words, a system that provides no chance for millions of children--Latinos, Blacks, and others.

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