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Federal Opinion

Replacing No Child Left Behind

By Richard Rothstein — August 11, 2009 4 min read
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While promoting health-care reform this summer in Green Bay, Wis., President Barack Obama took questions from the audience. One had nothing to do with health, but is on the minds of parents and teachers everywhere: How do we move the focus in education “away from single-day testing and test-driven outcomes?” There was applause.

Mr. Obama responded by saying that if all we are doing is giving standardized tests and teaching to them, “that’s not improving our education system.” (Again, the audience applauded.) He repeated an aphorism he’d heard in rural Illinois: “Just weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.” (Yet more applause.)

The president then said that we need standardized testing, but that we can’t hold schools or teachers accountable for scores alone. We also must look at the quality of students’ ongoing work, and observe teachers in their classrooms to make valid judgments about their effectiveness.

This approach undermines the basis of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which now holds schools accountable only for math and reading scores. But recent Washington policy talk seems mostly concerned with improving the accuracy of math and reading tests. One common panacea offered is to compare scores of the same students from one year to the next, rather than comparing students in the same grade in successive years.

Yet even if the statistical technology for such “value added” growth models could be developed (a big “if,” given student mobility, the unreliability of a single test, and the nonrandom assignment of students to teachers), this “improvement” would not address the more fundamental issue the president raised: There’s more to good education than math and reading scores.

Last year, candidate Obama elaborated this theme. He said that No Child Left Behind was “intended to raise standards in local schools.” But what happened, he said, was that, “because it relied on just a single standardized test, schools felt pressured to just teach to the test.” In many districts, Mr. Obama maintained, teachers and principals have decided that if they are to bring their students up to the proficient level, “all they can do is just study math and reading every day, all day long. They’ve eliminated recess, they’ve eliminated art and music.”

“So part of the solution,” Mr. Obama concluded, “is changing No Child Left Behind, so that the assessment is one that takes into account all the factors that go into a good education.”

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the current version, has stalled because too few policymakers have considered how to implement the balanced approach that Mr. Obama has consistently invoked. Instead, mention of reauthorization paralyzes lawmakers, who fear public reaction to more testing, more narrowing of curriculum, and unrealistic expectations that schools can raise disadvantaged children’s achievement simply by pressing them to prepare better for tests.

Soon after the president’s Green Bay speech, the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education campaign issued recommendations about how this vision—holding schools accountable for a balanced set of learning goals—could be put into practice. The policy proposals were drafted by a diverse committee that included, among others, former assistant secretaries of education in the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations.

The BBA report insists that designing better accountability will require experimentation. States will need highly trained inspectors who look at test data, but also visit schools to review students’ written work, observe teaching quality, evaluate student behavior and the school climate, and determine whether schools provide appropriate social supports for children, by coordinating with health and social service providers and striving to ensure that appropriate early-childhood and after-school programs are available.

Along with requiring states to develop qualitative school evaluation systems, reauthorization should also expand the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test given to a sample of U.S. students. At present, these samples are only large enough to provide state-by-state results in reading and math. A recent arts assessment, for example, surveyed so few students that we can’t know how arts education compares between states, or the extent to which disadvantaged children in the various states are getting shortchanged in the arts. Congress should increase the sample sizes to determine how states and their subgroups compare in the arts, history, sciences, physical fitness, and work skills.

In its early years, NAEP reported on such varied school outcomes. Since the 1970s, however, the focus has been on getting more sophisticated math and reading measurements, reinforcing schools’ incentives to ignore other knowledge and skills.

As part of his embrace of common standards, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pledged to give states $350 million of economic-stimulus money to improve the quality of math and reading tests. We all want better math and reading assessments. But we should also invest in better tests of history, sciences, and the arts, and develop tools to evaluate student behavior, judge a school’s disciplinary climate, see whether students know how to cooperate, and measure whether schools are enhancing physical fitness and appropriate health choices and habits.

The federal government should hold all schools accountable for such a balanced approach—especially if the president wants continued applause when answering questions about education improvement.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Replacing No Child Left Behind

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