Federal Opinion

Isn’t It Amazing?

By Paul D. Houston — July 23, 2007 3 min read
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In recent weeks, we have seen a flurry of “studies” on the No Child Left Behind Act that seem to conclude that it is a wonderful thing. I suggest it is time we look behind the headlines.

The latest study, commissioned by the Educational Testing Service, concludes that when the public learns more about this federal law, they tend to like it better. (“To Know NCLB Is to Like It, ETS Poll Finds,” June 20, 2007.) Now, far be it from me to suggest bias here, but one must ask: Who has benefited the most from No Child Left Behind? Would it be the teachers, who have faced pressures complying with regulations that bear little relationship to sound educational practice? Perhaps it is the children, who have seen their classroom studies narrowed to allow for more time for testing and test preparation? No, so far the greatest beneficiary of this law is the testing industry, which has had more business than it can handle. This has led not only to higher profits, but also to inaccurate results and huge errors in scoring and reporting.

See Also

For more discussion on this topic, read the edweek.org blog, NCLB: Act II.

So, a testing-industry study that shows that a law which requires massive testing is a popular thing seems unworthy of the coverage it has received.

The results of the ETS study fly in the face of the results obtained by the American Association of School Administrators, when we studied the same issues. (“Critics of NCLB Ask Congress to Overhaul It,” Feb. 23, 2007.) We concluded that the more the public knew about the No Child Left Behind law, the less they liked it. Who is right here? Well, it all depends on the questions asked. The ETS study asked whether the public liked a program that applied rigorous standards to schools and whether making certain that all kids learn is a good idea. The answer was a resounding yes. (Gee, do you think?)

The proponents of the No Child Left Behind law are fond of pointing out that whatever gets tested gets taught. True. And whatever does not get tested gets left behind. There is little doubt at this point that NCLB has narrowed the curriculum and focused on test results to the exclusion of a broader educational experience. And there is little doubt that overemphasizing results on a standardized test leads to more standardization and less innovation and creative expression—the coins of the realm in the global race for success.

Having the testing industry study the results of a massive program of testing is like having the cigarette industry do a study of lung cancer.

The AASA dug deeper, underneath the bumper-sticker goals of No Child Left Behind. We asked whether it was a good idea to emphasize testing so much that it takes away time for learning, whether testing kids in English who don’t speak English was reasonable, and whether it made any sense to treat a school that had fallen down in one area the same as another that had failed in all areas. The conclusion by the public was that it didn’t.

Having the testing industry study the results of a massive program of testing is like having the cigarette industry do a study of lung cancer.

In another recent NCLB study, the Center on Education Policy, which at least has no dog in the fight, found that after five years of placing a huge emphasis on testing, test scores have gone up. I am sure. Put pressure on the teachers and administrators in our public schools to produce higher test scores and they will do that. Ask them, however, whether the children actually know more and they will tell you that this isn’t the case.

An educational program built around tests has the same validity as a nutritional program built around Twinkies. Twinkies provide instant gratification, but it is hard to build a case that they provide the same nutritional value as a balanced meal. Some might even argue that the sugar and calories have a deleterious effect on one’s health.

The No Child Left Behind Act is currently undergoing reauthorization by Congress. People who have a vested interest in seeing that the law is renewed are lining up to ensure that it is approved with as few changes as possible. Many have no clue as to what broad effects this legislation has had on our nation’s children or our ability to compete internationally. Perhaps before building a case for No Child Left Behind, we need a conversation on what we really want from our educational system—higher tests scores or children who can fulfill their possibilities. Those are not necessarily one and the same.


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