Opinion
Assessment Commentary

Shaping Up the ‘No Child’ Act

By W. James Popham — May 26, 2004 5 min read
The law needs to be fixed at its accountability-rooted center, not at its fringes.

There’s little doubt that the No Child Left Behind Act has become a remarkably visible feature of the Bush administration’s domestic policy. Indeed, a week rarely goes by when local newspapers don’t carry at least one No Child Left Behind-related editorial, news story, or pro/con letter from a reader.

Because this prominent federal statute has become so strongly associated with President Bush, we can readily understand why U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and his colleagues are reluctant to alter the law’s implementation rules in any substantial way. President Bush must not be seen by the public to be backing away from the legislation’s accountability-based insistence that U.S. public schools improve.

The core of the current dissatisfaction with the No Child Left Behind Act rests on an inescapable reality. As the law and its regulations stand, far too many public schools will soon be regarded as failures. Oh, it’s easy to vilify this legislation as representing yet another unfunded federal mandate. But even if many more federal dollars were miraculously ladled into this law’s implementation, that wouldn’t make the specter of excessive school failure disappear. There will still be far too many schools unable to raise their students’ No Child Left Behind Act test scores sufficiently.

Based on recent announcements from Secretary Paige’s office, the unhappiness-reduction strategy that’s been adopted by the U.S. Department of Education appears to focus on the softening of selected No Child Left Behind law requirements. In recent weeks, for example, we have witnessed regulatory relaxations in the way educators can (1) count the test scores of students who have limited English proficiency, (2) assess students with disabilities, (3) certify that teachers are “highly qualified,” and (4) calculate minimum participation rates for test-takers. I believe that these alterations can be accurately characterized as “softening the edges” of the No Child Left Behind law.

But an edge-softening strategy simply fails to address the central issue that makes this law so threatening to so many constituencies. Edge-softening strategies don’t deal with the crucial requirement that will soon force more than half of our nation’s public schools to be labeled as failures. That threatening feature is the law’s stipulation that each public school’s No Child Left Behind test scores must represent “adequate yearly progress"—or the school fails.

One year ago, Professor Robert Linn of the University of Colorado, one of the nation’s leading educational measurement authorities, pointed out in his presidential address to the American Educational Research Association that the adequate- yearly-progress requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act were so outlandishly unrealistic that American educators would soon become demoralized by being asked to attain the unattainable. When teachers are asked to play a yearly-progress-based accountability game they simply can’t win, frustration will surely follow.

Even more worrisome, we now find that education officials in most states have chosen No Child Left Behind tests, either national exams or state-customized ones, that are essentially insensitive to the detection of instructional improvement. Instructionally insensitive tests simply can’t identify instructional improvements—even if such improvements are actually present. How on earth can a school’s staff improve its students’ test scores enough to reach the school’s adequate-yearly-progress goals if the state’s No Child Left Behind test is instructionally insensitive?

A few days ago, I picked up a morning newspaper and found an op-ed essay in which Secretary Paige was defending the No Child Left Behind Act. He lauded its test-based accountability provisions, asserting that “young learners will be tested regularly in math and reading, and in a few years, in science as well.” As a result, the secretary said, teachers can better tailor instruction to meet every child’s needs, administrators can make better- informed decisions about how to target resources, and parents can better evaluate their children’s progress and the effectiveness of their schools.

Inappropriate tests will not yield accurate evidence of school quality or valuable instruction-related materials.

Yes, those would be three wonderful consequences of this legislation, namely, test results that helped teachers, administrators, and parents do a better job of educating children. Unfortunately, there’s no chance at all of such dividends taking place as long as federal officials allow states to adopt No Child Left Behind Act tests that will do none of these things. Secretary Paige and his colleagues must understand that not just any old test will yield the three positive consequences he identified.

Appropriate tests can yield accurate evidence of school quality and supply the instruction-related information that Secretary Paige wants to see provided to teachers, administrators, and parents. But inappropriate tests will do neither of these things. And at present, because almost all states’ No Child Left Behind Act tests are instructionally insensitive, those tests are altogether inappropriate.

It is, of course, far easier for federal officials to modify a law’s regulations than to trot back to Congress requesting substantive alterations in the law. But because the enmity that this federal legislation often evokes is chiefly associated with a school’s ability to reach its test-based “adequate yearly progress” targets, then that’s where Secretary Paige needs to center his attention.

The heart of the No Child Left Behind Act’s school improvement strategy is its demand for test-based evidence that children are learning more. Even though the law’s long-term adequate-yearly-progress requirements are unrealistically ambitious, for a few years the law’s impact on students can be positive—if the right kinds of tests are used. In states where inappropriate No Child Left Behind Act tests have been selected, federal “remedies” aimed at softening the law’s edges won’t make this law loved. That wouldn’t matter so much if improvements in student learning were taking place. But they aren’t. The real problem is that the recent spate of fringe-fussing changes in the No Child Left Behind Act don’t deal with the law’s most fundamental flaw.

W. James Popham, a University of California, Los Angeles, emeritus professor of education, is the author of America’s “Failing” Schools: How Parents and Educators Can Cope with No Child Left Behind (Routledge, 2004).

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A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Shaping Up the ‘No Child’ Act

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