Another reason to hate NCLB

The biggest issue I have with the No Child Left Behind legislation is its heavy emphasis on standardized testing.  The basic premise of the law is that if the kids can’t pass a test then the school is failing, and then that school gets punished with budget cuts that make it fall even more behind.  Yes, it’s great that the spirit of the law is to hold schools accountable, but to assume that a child’s success can only be measured through a test is a great disservice to our children.  Never mind that a lot of schools are falling behind because of a lack of funding in the first place and digging them deeper into a hole won’t fix things.

So it seems odd that during the month of April I spent my evenings working for a company that writes and corrects standardized tests when I considered them to be such a thorn in my side when I was teaching.  Just think of me as one of those hapless animals in “The Flintstones” that frequently took breaks from their job to say to the camera, “Eh, it’s a living.”  And I do need to point out that I signed a confidentiality agreement with them, so I need to refrain from giving specific details about the project.  I can give you the most general of information, which is all you need for me to continue: I was correcting four elementary-level Social Studies short answer questions.  This particular question was about important figures in American history, and it asked the students to give specific examples of what these people did.

One particular student illustrates the extreme deficiencies in the system.  As I was reading through his answer to the prompt, I could sense that this kid really knew his American history.  I daresay that I was reading the work of a student that was potentially passionate about the subject, even.  But there was one critical flaw that prevented me from giving him a perfect score.  While the child had thrown out all the necessary key words that described the deeds of these Americans, his lack of command over the written word meant that he had merely provided a list of words instead of clear, or even partially clear, sentences with any sort of structure that could be understood.

Let me remind you that this was not and English test!   We were explicitly told that we were grading the content, not the delivery.  Spelling and grammar were not our concern.  And here’s where the test failed the child instead of the other way around.  I had a supervisor read through the response with me, but neither of us could justify giving full credit because of the lack of coherence.  This kid knew his stuff.  I could feel it.

Had this been a situation where it was a test that I had given to a classroom I could have handled this differently.  I could have pulled the kid aside after the test, sat him down, and had a conversation with him about these American heroes.  Sure, he couldn’t write out what he wanted to say, but I have the feeling that he certainly had a lot to say about the subject and would be able to talk my ear off to no end.  In turn, I could jot a little note on his test that says “Answers given orally”, give him his big, fat A+, and then find time to work with him on his writing skills.

I really wanted to find this student and have him flown into Minnesota so we could do just that.  As it stands, he gets a less-than-stellar grade than he probably deserves and could be incorrectly marked as having deficiencies in a subject that he could be a miniature expert in.  Sure, I’m making assumptions and going with gut feelings here, but in the eyes of the government this kid’s level of achievement is based solely on this test.  And if there’s enough of these kids that are misrepresented as being deficient then this school could be subjected to harsh penalties under NCLB that it doesn’t deserve.  That’s a bit maddening.

Such high stakes causes teachers to sink to the dreaded level of “teaching to the test”.  This is where the curriculum is narrowed to reflect not much more than what the students need to pass the test.  One would think that this wouldn’t be that much of a problem.  After all, these tests should cover everything that the kids need to know, right?  Yeah, one would think so, but more often than not it isn’t the case.  These tests can be horrendously narrow in scope and, as shown with this test that I’ve been correcting, artificially segmenting knowledge and skills.  Furthermore, there is a huge time commitment involved with administering these tests, and it’s not uncommon for teachers to have to take a whole week or more out of their teaching time to just sit their students down and make them take a test.

My problem isn’t just that this child was most likely penalized for not being able to effectively communicate what he knows, especially since in this situation my focus as a scorer should have been solely on the content.  It’s that the compartmentalizing of the subjects in these tests make them so much more of a waste of time than they should be.  As it stands, these students are taking separate tests to evaluate their writing and their knowledge of history.  Why can’t we do both with the same test?  If it’s so important to have these tests, why can’t we set up a process that takes the smallest bite out of the precious face time that teachers have with students?

My last full-time teaching job was as a middle school English teacher, and one of the problems with the school I was at was the almost insurmountable homework load that we put upon the students.  Somehow “rigorous” got mistaken with “busy”, but then again I was just as guilty of piling things on to the kids from time to time.  But one of the few explicit instructions given to me was “make sure the kids know how to write”, and a big part of teaching a student how to write is to have her write and write often, applying the techniques taught in the classroom and evaluating the success reached by the student in doing so.  Pile this on top of the vast amount of papers that had to be written for other subjects, and the amount of work gets ridiculous when the science teacher, the English teacher, and the history teacher all want a paper done at the same time.

Toward the end of the school year, I finally got a chance to sit down with the history teacher and try and figure out this problem.  I realized that a good number of the papers I was having students write were just for the sake of making them write, with a few exceptions being those in which they needed to process something they had read in my class.  My colleague, on the other hand, had a problem in that she was more concerned that the students get the content correct but would receive papers written so terribly that she felt obligated to add grammar and structure to her grading just to get papers that were readable.  The solution to both problems was so simple that it was a wonder that we weren’t doing it all year.

With her focus being on the content of the paper and mine being on the structure, at the end of the year we had the students print off two copies of their papers and hand them in to both of us.  The students got a list of criteria from both teachers and wrote one paper to satisfy both the content and quality requirements.  The students had a smaller work load, the history teacher didn’t have to take the time to grade the grammar and effectiveness of delivery, and I didn’t have to take the time to manufacture a topic for the students to write about nor worry about whether or not what they were writing had any basis in fact.  We accomplished everything we needed to with less work, allowing us to focus our efforts on delivering a more varied and enriching curriculum as well as allowing more time to deliver it.

It takes a lot of time to administer these tests and, as it turns out, the knowledge and skills taught in schools are so vast and so intertwined that these tests are abysmally inadequate to effectively evaluate the students as a whole and, in turn, schools as a whole.  The nickname for “No Child Left Behind” is “No Child Left Untested”.  It is unfortunate that the law lives up to that nickname and not in a good way.  We have a need for accountability, and instead we’ve been stuck with poorly executed and time consuming testing that sometimes forces schools to narrow their focus to the bare-bones basics.  For what is spent on these tests, we are not getting our money’s worth when one looks at what we’re expected to get out of them.

We would be so much better with a system that takes a look at far more than test results and incorporates such things as the lives and backgrounds of the students, skills other than what’s evaluated on these limited standardized tests, and the richness and variety in the school system’s curriculum.  And then we need to stop punishing schools for failing.  A failing school is not like a bad dog that needs to have its treats taken away, more than likely it’s a starving, neglected dog that needs better care.  All it takes is poor results from one test to have money and programs stripped away from schools, and sometimes even the school community is split up as students are sent away.  Too much hinges on just standardized tests.

No Child Left Behind has the potential to kill our public school system.  And that’s scary.

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