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NCLB Panel Gathers Views on Testing and Data Collection

By Michelle R. Davis — May 16, 2006 4 min read

The No Child Left Behind Act imposes the wrong kind of testing on schools, educators need better systems to interpret the test data they get, and the federal government should help pay for the mandates it imposes, according to several advocates who last week addressed a private panel studying the education law and how to improve it.

The Commission on No Child Left Behind, an independent, bipartisan group formed early this year, ventured onto the battlefield of the policy wars with its hearing in Connecticut, a state that last year sued the federal government over the requirements of the school accountability law championed by President Bush.

The discussion centered on assessments and data systems, with a group that included Connecticut’s education commissioner and its state attorney general. It was the second of five public hearings scheduled for the commission, which will release a report and recommendations in January.

Also last week, staff members of the commission, which is housed at the Aspen Institute in Washington, released a report on the performance of special education students and students with limited English under the 4-year-old law. It showed that in the five states surveyed it was not solely the test performance of students from those two subgroups that was typically the reason schools did not make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law.

At the May 9 hearing at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn., former Gov. Roy E. Barnes of Georgia—the Democrat who co-chairs the panel with Republican Tommy G. Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and U.S. secretary of health and human services—said education data systems must be “robust and complicated” so the information can be accurately compiled and used.

“It makes little sense to assess our children if we can’t accurately and effectively manage the data that has been produced,” Mr. Barnes said at the meeting, which was televised on the Web.

Several panel members said the type of testing being conducted under the federal law must be re-evaluated. The No Child Left Behind law requires testing students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and math and once in high school in those subjects, and schools will be required to start testing in science in the 2007-08 school year. But the law does not require “formative” assessment— testing that teachers can do repeatedly through the year and use to guide their lesson plans.

Betty J. Sternberg, Connecticut’s commissioner of education, said that, in her view, formative testing is increasingly important.

“The tests required by NCLB are not useful to shape instruction for individual students,” she said.

Ms. Sternberg also said she was concerned about a trend toward all multiple-choice questions and a de-emphasis on essay questions, or other types of complex questions that require students to do more than fill in a box.

Not Enough Money?

Several members of the panel also said the U.S. Department of Education should look more closely at testing that tracks individual student improvement over time. That type of longitudinal or growth-model measure, for which the Education Department is establishing a pilot program, would provide much more accurate information, said Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the 1.1 million student New York City school system.

“Failure to take a longitudinal approach has led to all sorts of unfortunate behaviors” on the part of states, schools and districts trying to use strategy to game the system, he said.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the most significant problem with the No Child Left Behind law is the lack of funding for its mandates, the issue that prompted his state’s lawsuit against Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Mr. Blumenthal filed the lawsuit in August 2005, after the federal Education Department refused to grant the state testing waivers.

“We are perilously close to failing in this program,” Mr. Blumenthal said. At issue is funding for additional testing and all the demands the law makes, he said.

“We’re very simply asking the federal government to give us the money to comply with the law,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

But James A. Peyser, the chairman of the Massachusetts state board of education, said the amount the state receives from Washington for education appears to be enough.

He said the state receives about $7.8 million from the federal government to support the requirements of NCLB, and he estimated his state’s “bill” for testing related to law was about $11 million. He said that because his state goes beyond what the law requires, “it’s not at all clear to me that those amounts are misaligned.”

“I can’t, in good faith, argue that the amount of money we receive is out of line with actual costs,” he said.

5-State Survey

The report released last week by the commission’s staff provided a bit of clarity on at least one facet of the No Child Left Behind law. On common complaint about the law is that schools are not making AYP solely because of the test scores of children with disabilities or those with limited English skills, the report says.

But an analysis of achievement data for the 2004-05 school year in California, Florida, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania found that only a small percentage of schools in each state had to report test results from those students because their numbers were small enough to render the groups statistically insignificant.

Only a very small percentage of schools in those states, the report says, did not make AYP targets because of the inclusion of test results of one of those subgroups.

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