Opinion
Federal Commentary

Where’s the ‘Child’ in the No Child Left Behind Debate?

By Thomas E. Petri — February 04, 2008 3 min read

Listening to recent debates in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail regarding the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, one might wonder where the aforementioned “child” is.

Merit pay, professional development, and supplementary educational services are just a few of the hotly contested issues. And all sides appear to be entrenched, with little hope of reconciliation this year.

As important as these issues are, they are ultimately peripheral to the individual students and the impact this law has had on them. Frankly, too little attention has been paid to the “child” that the law was designed to serve.

In enacting this law, Congress placed new and significant demands on students and teachers in the form of mandatory state standards and assessments to track progress toward meeting NCLB goals. With its strong accountability mechanisms, the 2002 law represented a landmark change in federal education policy.

It’s time to set the heated rhetoric of special interests aside and pass a set of pragmatic changes this year.

But the current reauthorization process has scarcely focused on why and how we administer these assessments and what value they provide to individual educators and students.

The most important changes Congress should make are, in fact, those that have quietly been agreed to, and in some cases implemented, by the U.S. Department of Education on an administrative basis. Amid the acrimony surrounding the law’s reauthorization, we’ve lost sight of the fact that there are many changes we can agree on—and these would have the greatest direct impact on the nation’s students.

One example of a consensus change is the move toward greater use of “growth models,” which track individual student improvement rather than look at a class as a static snapshot. The Education Department has learned, and Congress has quietly concurred, that growth models using robust computer systems that track student progress from year to year are far better mechanisms for gauging individual student growth and ensuring accountability for improvement.

Another area where parties seem to have reached consensus is in reforming school restructuring programs, which apply to schools that do not make adequate yearly progress in student performance over a period of several years. Failure of a school to make adequate progress over a number of years results in strict intervention, which is important. These restructuring programs, however, may be wasted on schools that are only slightly missing targets, rather than failing on a widespread basis. We can all agree to restructuring reform that focuses resources on the schools that need them most, without wasting taxpayers’ money on schools that are otherwise on target, save for a small category of students.

Finally, one of the most common and valid complaints under the existing version of NCLB is that the kinds of state tests mandated under the law are largely worthless from the perspective of students, teachers, and parents. Those tests measure the schools, but are far too long in processing and far too limited in scope to tell much about how individual students are performing.

One simple change that is gaining broad support would allow states to choose to use computer adaptive testing, rather than an archaic paper test, for their statewide assessments under NCLB.

Amid the acrimony surrounding the law’s reauthorization, we’ve lost sight of the fact that there are many changes we can agree on.

Computer adaptive assessments adjust automatically as the student takes the test. If the student is doing well, the test asks harder questions. If the student is having difficulty, the questions get easier. The result is a highly personalized assessment that is reported on a scale common to all students. In other words, an adaptive assessment can provide an accurate measure of a child’s skills and abilities, while also measuring grade-level performance.

Congress should give all states the flexibility to use adaptive testing to determine grade-level achievement and also to provide student-growth data that teachers can use to help students learn to the best of their abilities. With adaptive testing in place, parents and teachers can be better informed in order to help each child meet grade-level expectations through a realistic academic plan. U.S. Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., and I have introduced a bill to give states this flexibility.

Setting aside the other “hotly contested issues,” there are a myriad of technical and consensus provisions Congress could pass this year that President Bush should be comfortable signing into law. We can make important adjustments that will make the law work better for students, while preserving the strong accountability standards currently in place.

It’s time to set the heated rhetoric of special interests aside and pass a set of pragmatic changes this year that can better make this law work for students who, after all, are supposed to be our primary concern.

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