The No Child Left Behind Act is having its day in Congress. And while the many criticisms that have been leveled at the law will undoubtedly lead in the coming reauthorization to some technical and procedural revisions, it seems clear that with its strong bipartisan support, NCLB will be part of America’s educational policy for the foreseeable future.
When we look back over the history of social policy, we see how often it has unintended consequences. In the immediate push and pull of passing legislation, broader questions of impact and philosophy rarely get asked. With that in mind, it would be good to step back for a moment and consider the No Child Left Behind law in broader terms: What kind of education does a program of such testing foster? And that question resonates with an even more basic one: What kind of education befits a democratic society?
One undeniable value of this federal law is that it shines a bright light on those underserved populations of students who get lost in averaged measures of performance. The assumption is that if schools expect more of such students, they will achieve—and the tests will measure their achievement. Some education activists have been using NCLB to lobby, and in some cases sue, for the curricular and financial resources needed to comply with the law’s mandates.
|NCLB: Thoughts for Congress|
There are aspects of No Child Left Behind that are clearly democratic. The assumption that all children can learn and develop. The responsibility of public institutions to their citizenry. The dissatisfaction with business as usual, and a belief that institutions can be improved.
What is worth exploring, though, is the degree to which these tenets are invested in an accountability mechanism that might restrict their full realization.
A score on a standardized test seems like a straightforward indicator of achievement. The score goes up, goes down, or remains the same. But there are, in fact, a host of procedural and technical problems in developing, administering, scoring, and interpreting such tests. (And there are also concerns about how schools and districts can manipulate them.) “In most cases,” writes the measurement specialist Robert L. Linn, “the instruments and technology have not been up to the demands that have been placed on them by high-stakes accountability.” No wonder, then, that there is a robust debate among testing experts about what, finally, can be deduced from the scores about a student’s or a school’s achievement.
There is a second, related, issue. Tests embody definitions of knowledge, learning, and teaching. A test that would include, say, the writing of an essay, or a music recital, or the performance of an experiment would embody notions of cognition and instruction that are different from those of the typical tasks presented on standardized tests: multiple-choice items, matching, fill-ins. I have given both kinds of tests; both have value, but they get at different things, represent knowledge in different ways, might match or be distant from a school’s curriculum, can require different kinds of teaching. When one kind of test dominates, and when the stakes are high, the tests can drive and compress a curriculum. What is tested gains in importance, and other subjects fade; math is hit hard, art and debate are lost.
There is no doubt that NCLB has jolted some low-performing schools to evaluate and redirect their inadequate curricula. The result has been improvement on test scores, and this is a major source of support for the law. The key issue is how teachers and administrators have accomplished this revision: through a strictly functional and unimaginative curriculum (which, admittedly, might be better than what came before), or through a rich course of study that, as byproduct, affects test scores?
A teacher I know tells this story. In response to the NCLB mandate to focus on all children, this teacher’s district has issued a page-long checklist on each student to be used in each class the student takes. Every teacher is to mark every time he or she assists a child, asks if the child understands, notes a behavior problem, and so on. This requirement applies to all students, every class—though principals, in an attempt to keep instruction from collapsing under the regulation, tell teachers to pay special attention to their students who are most at risk. The intention here is a good one, but the means by which it is accomplished is so formulaic and cumbersome that it devastates teaching. Care becomes codified, legalistic, lost in reductive compliance.
Standardized tests can well be part of the constellation of assessment, but should not overwhelm it.
This kind of thing is not unusual today. It can be ridiculed as a thoughtless local response to good legislation, but the pressure to comply is great, and when there are no funds available to mount professional development, or make changes in the size and organization of schools, or pursue other means to foster attentive and cognitively rich instruction, then districts, in the context of a high-stakes, underresourced environment, will resort to all sorts of draconian, and ultimately counterproductive, solutions.
This concern about the nature of a school’s response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those students at the center of most reform efforts: poor children, immigrants, racial- and ethnic-minority students. As the educational researcher Kris Gutierrez puts it, writing about English-language learners, the direction and monitoring resulting from NCLB might “ensure fidelity to the [accountability] model but do not lead to rich learning environments.” The end result is the replication of a troubling pattern in American schooling: Poor kids get an education of skills and routine, a lower-tier education, while students in more-affluent districts get a robust course of study.
The scores on standardized tests have become the gold standard of excellence, the new discourse of schooling.
Now, assessment is integral to learning. Good teachers give a wide variety of tests and assignments, make judgments about student work, and probe students’ thinking when their answers miss the mark. Standardized tests can well be part of this constellation of assessment, but should not overwhelm it. It’s important to remember how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give and take of the classroom. That’s one reason there is a debate among testing specialists about whether a test score—which is, finally, a statistical abstraction—is really an accurate measure of learning.
One indication of the value of a piece of social policy is the public conversations it sparks, the issues it gets us to ponder. Civil rights legislation, for example, gave rise to a moral debate in the nation, a self-examination of our history and first principles. The No Child Left Behind law does raise important questions about equity and expectation. But unless its testing program is part of a larger effort that includes other compensatory and professional-development measures and social programs aimed at vulnerable populations, we get, instead, a focus on scores, rankings, and an elaborate technology of calibration and compliance. More sustained consideration of equality of opportunity, of the meaning of public schooling, of the nature of learning in a democracy—this all gets lost in the machinery of testing.
While that machinery is as powerful as ever, there are signs that we as a country are beginning to seek some fuller language of schooling. Young people get so narrowly defined in the current environment, and the purpose of education gets narrowed as well. The dissatisfaction is emerging from a number of points along the ideological spectrum. Writing of No Child Left Behind, the conservative cultural critic David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, put it simply and well: The current policy, he said, “treats students as skill-acquiring cogs in an economic wheel.” The No Child Left Behind Act will undoubtedly be reauthorized, but my hope is that as we debate its merits and flaws, we will begin to develop more fitting ways to talk about children and the schools that shape their lives.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Seek a ‘Fuller Language of Schooling’