Federal Opinion

Why We Must Fix the No Child Left Behind Law

By Betty J. Sternberg — June 14, 2005 8 min read
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There are unacceptably large differences in achievement among subgroups of children, and it is vitally important that these differences be significantly lessened.

People who care about kids—parents, grandparents, and guardians, as well as teachers, principals, board members, and school administrators—share a common vision. We see a future in which all children—no matter the wealth of their parents, the color of their skin, their disabilities, or their gender—will have the knowledge, skills, and aspects of character necessary to realize their dreams.

We in Connecticut embrace this future with energy and commitment. We know it is important, achievable, and challenging work. There are unacceptably large differences in achievement among subgroups of children, and it is vitally important that these differences be significantly lessened. Connecticut knows that reaching a future for all students in which barriers to their dreams are eliminated is challenging, but reasonable—if we use common-sense, research-based strategies.

To make this future a reality, Connecticut, since the late 1990s, has spent more than $600 million for programs—preschool, early reading success, after-school and summer school, and priority district programs in curriculum and instruction—to improve the performance of our lowest-achieving youngsters. An analysis of our students’ achievement on our mastery tests from 2000 to 2004 shows that we are seeing results. The achievement of our least-wealthy youngsters is increasing at a much faster rate—in some cases five times faster—than that of their wealthier counterparts. The same is true for our black and Hispanic students compared with our white students.

While this is promising, it is not enough. We must accelerate the trend. This requires that both the nation and the state offer a comprehensive set of programs that build the capacity of our schools to meet the high expectations we hold for all students.

Every needy 3- and 4-year-old must attend a high-quality preschool program. The knowledge and skills that children—particularly economically disadvantaged children—acquire from high-quality preschool are essential to their success in school. Without them, a child starts kindergarten behind others with that advantage, and has great difficulty catching up.

The literacy needs of the parents of the youngsters whose achievement we are trying to raise must be addressed. A child whose parents cannot read will have that much more difficulty learning to read without the reinforcement that a literate, much less a literature-rich, home can provide.

The physical- and mental-health needs of our neediest youngsters and their parents must be met. A child who cannot see words clearly because his vision has not been corrected will be unable to read. A youngster who has been subjected to an emotionally abusive home will be unable to concentrate on learning.

Our neediest schools must regularly utilize the finest, technology-rich, research-based curriculum, and continually teach their educators to make the best use of it. Such curriculum employs embedded formative assessments, which, as research shows, produce increased achievement for all students, particularly our lowest-achieving youngsters.

We must offer a longer school day and year to our neediest children. Summer and after-school programs are offered more efficiently and effectively as part of the regular program, not as add-ons available haphazardly through the whims of funding cycles. More time on task without the disruptions involved in closing and opening school programs—introducing new administrators, teachers, and tutors to children—will result in better learning for students.

Finally, we need to measure our students’ performance often enough to know that these programs are effective, but not so often as to take away from the rich instructional time and supports we know our students need. The goal must be to ensure that no subgroup’s achievement is significantly different from that of any other subgroup, while understanding that there will always be some variation.

This is what Connecticut has been doing, and would like to continue under the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Since the mid-1980s, Connecticut has tested youngsters annually in grades 4, 6, and 8 with the sort of standardized tests a strict reading of the federal law requires, adding similar tests in grade 10 in the early 1990s. Since January of this year, Connecticut has asked that we use the test items we have piloted for grades 3, 5, and 7 in formative tests. Such tests are administered multiple times throughout the year rather than annually. They give teachers immediate, frequent feedback so they can change instruction for each child continuously during the year. The annual, standardized tests cannot be used this way. They are used for accountability purposes to determine how well schools are doing. Our proposal for formative testing, unlike the federal requirement of more annual, standardized testing, is backed by years of research.

We must offer a longer school day and year to our neediest children.

Formative tests have been shown to help all students improve, and are especially beneficial for low-achieving students. Rather than spending millions for more annual, standardized tests that do not give feedback for months and will not tell schools, teachers, or parents more than they already know about their children’s academic performance, we want to use formative tests that “produce significant and often substantial learning gains” (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1998). Ironically, the administration that insists on “research-based practices” not only rejects our state’s request, which is rooted in years of research, but also promotes as a “principle” of the No Child Left Behind law “annual, standardized testing,” a practice for which there is no research base. (A U.S. Department of Education official has informed me, however, that research showing positive effects of annual, standardized testing is forthcoming.)

Attempting to find a compromise with Connecticut, the federal Education Department proposed two possible solutions. One would have us administer only the multiple-choice items of our tests to our 3rd, 5th, and 7th grade students. The other would have us eliminate the writing-sample portion of our tests in those grades, substituting, for example, average-daily-attendance data as the No Child Left Behind law’s third required “academic indicator.”

Understand these “solutions” in the context of Connecticut. We have been administering rigorous, standardized tests since 1984. They include reading, mathematics, and writing sections. We use various formats: multiple-choice items; grid-in math items, in which the student must pencil in the answer on a grid; and constructive-response items, in which the student must read a written piece and respond by writing answers to questions about it, in both the math and reading sections. In addition, we test writing by providing prompts to which youngsters must respond by writing an essay, and we test math by asking not only straight computation questions, but also application and problem-solving questions that require written explanations.

The suggestions offered by the federal department would have us dumb down our tests, either by dropping more-rigorous formats or by eliminating a core academic area—writing. This reflects neither common sense nor solid research. Accordingly, Connecticut declined the offer.

Do we want a national policy that causes states to lower their educational standards in homage to some false “principle”: annual, standardized testing? Do we want a national policy that includes requirements that are harmful to students, such as prohibiting a state from insisting that providers of supplemental educational services meet the teacher-quality provisions of the law, virtually guaranteeing that tutoring will be provided by people who have not been trained to teach reading?

Do we want a national policy that forces energy, time, commitment, and resources to be spent on spurious requirements, preventing us from providing the programs and services that we know, through common sense and research, will improve student achievement?

Do we want a national policy full of specific, onerous requirements that keep us so focused on academic achievement alone that we are diverted from an equally fundamental issue?

High academic honor without high ethical behavior is no honor at all.

The Hartford Courant, on May 10, reported that a former Connecticut high school honor student now in college was charged with “masterminding a $43 million scheme, shuffling bogus checks between banks in Switzerland and Greenwich [Conn.].” Can we still call him an “honor” student? No. Executives from Enron, WorldCom, and other corporations are serving sentences in our prisons. Can we still call them “gifted”? No. Similar examples are found in all sectors of society. All the academic achievement in the world will not offset moral lapses. All the academic achievement in the world will not create a responsible, caring, compassionate, and wise citizenry.

All the academic achievement in the world will not create a responsible, caring, compassionate, and wise citizenry.

Being honest, honorable, and kind, being courageous and choosing the right path when peer pressure would have them do otherwise—these are the fundamentals we need to instill in our children.

There are some things that cannot be measured on a paper-and-pencil test—respect for others and their opinions, taking risks necessary to fulfill aspirations, perseverance in the face of challenges, compassion for others. These qualities are the stuff of character. They can only be taught by example. They cannot be measured on a test. The only way to determine whether someone has developed these characteristics is through the test of life.

Sadly, our young people see too many negative examples in too many walks of life. So, every adult in every school must be an example of the best in human behavior. From the teacher to the custodian, from the principal to the food-service worker, every adult in our schools must be a model of good citizenship, good conduct, and the most fundamental humanity.

If we are serious about eliminating all obstacles to each child’s aspirations, we must acknowledge that the federal No Child Left Behind law, in its current form, cannot do so. Reauthorization comes in 2007; we must fix it.


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