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Failing Our Children: No Child Left behind Undermines Quality and Equity in Education Author(s): Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill Source: The Clearing House, Vol. 78, No. 1, No Child Left Behind Act (Sep. - Oct., 2004), pp. 12-16 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: . Accessed: 02/10/2011 15:39 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Clearing House.

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Page 1: No Child Left Behind

Failing Our Children: No Child Left behind Undermines Quality and Equity in EducationAuthor(s): Lisa Guisbond and Monty NeillSource: The Clearing House, Vol. 78, No. 1, No Child Left Behind Act (Sep. - Oct., 2004), pp.12-16Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.Stable URL: .Accessed: 02/10/2011 15:39

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].

Taylor & Francis, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The ClearingHouse.

Page 2: No Child Left Behind

Failing Our Children No Child Left Behind Undermines

Quality and Equity in Education


T he No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the title of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education

Act, describes a worthy goal for our nation. Tragically, the reality is that NCLB is aggravating, not solving, the problems that cause many children to be left behind. For the federal government to truly contribute to enhancing the quality of education for low-income and minority group students, NCLB must be overhauled.

FairTest, our nonprofit organization that strives to end misuses of standardized testing and promote fair evaluation of both teachers and students, has tracked the first two years of NCLB's implementation and iden- tified fundamental errors in its conception, design, and execution. Rather than accept NCLB's dangerous pre- scriptions for public education, we propose a new approach to accountability as the basis for a compre- hensive revamp of NCLB (Neill and Guisbond 2004).

Many false assumptions undergird NCLB. The most serious of the suppositions are the following:

1.Boosting standardized test scores should be the primary goal of schools. This assumption leads to one-size-fits- all teaching that focuses primarily on test prepara- tion and undermines efforts to give all children a high-quality education. This exclusive focus on test scores ignores the widespread desire for schools that address a broad range of academic and social goals, as reported in public opinion polls. One recent pub- lic opinion survey found Americans believe the most important thing schools should do is prepare respon- sible citizens. The next most important role for public schools was to help students become economically self-sufficent (Rose and Gallup 2000). Another recent survey found that people's key concerns about schools were mostly social issues not addressed by standards, tests, or accountability (Goodwin 2003).

2. Because poor teaching is the primary cause of unsatisfac- tory student performance, schools can best be improved by threats and sanctions. Such threats encourage teachers to focus narrowly on boosting test scores. However, these punitive actions fail to address underlying problems such as family poverty and inadequate school funding, which are major reasons that many students start off behind and never catch up.

A new accountability system must start from accurate assumptions, including a richer vision of schooling that will lead away from NCLB's test-and-punish methodol- ogy. This new approach assumes that educators want to do their jobs but need assistance to do better. We believe that rather than threatening educators with sanctions based on test results, our more effective approach focuses on gathering multiple forms of evi- dence about many aspects of schooling and using them to support school improvements. Because schools need to build the capacity to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education, all levels of government, therefore, must fulfill their responsibilities to provide adequate and equitable resources. FairTest's proposal also gives parents and the community central roles in the accountability process rather than excluding them through incomprehensible statistical procedures and bureaucratically mandated reports currently required by NCLB.

Set Up to Fail

At NCLB's destructive core is a link between standard- ized testing and heavy sanctions through the rigid and unrealistic "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) formula. The problem is that NCLB's AYP provision is not grounded in any proven theory of school improvement. As Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor

Lisa Guisbond is a researcher and advocate for the National Center for Fair and

Open Testing (FairTest), where Monty Neill, EdD, is the executive director.


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Vol. 78, No. 1 Failing Our Children 13

Richard Elmore explains: "The AYP requirement, a com- pletely arbitrary mathematical function grounded in no defensible knowledge or theory of school improvement, could, and probably will, result in penalizing and clos- ing schools that are actually experts in school improve- ment" (Elmore 2003, 6-10).

Moreover, many other expert analysts also have con- cluded that the AYP mechanism, the heart of the NCLB accountability provisions, guarantees failure for a sub- stantial majority of the nation's schools. For example, the National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that, according to these standards, some 70 percent of schools nationwide will fail (Prah 2002). More recently, a study conducted for the Connecticut Education Asso- ciation projected that more than nine out of ten Con- necticut elementary and middle schools will fail to meet AYP targets within ten years (Moscovitch 2004).

The reason for the high failure rate is that the pace of progress envisioned in the law-that all students will reach the proficient level within fourteen years of its passage-is implausible. Part of the problem lies in the word "proficiency," which Education Secretary Rod Paige defines as solid, grade-level achievement. In fact, the term comes from the National Assessment of Edu- cational Progress (NAEP), where it has been widely crit- icized for being an unrealistic and inaccurate standard, as well as a political construct engineered to depict a national academic crisis (Bracey 2003). Only about three in ten American students now score at the profi- cient level on NAEP reading and math tests (NCES 2004). Thus, within a little more than a decade, all stu- dents are expected to do as well as only a third now do-a goal far more stringent than simply "grade level."

Based on trends on NAEP tests over the past decade, prominent measurement expert Robert Linn calculated that it would take 166 years for all twelfth graders to attain proficiency, as defined by NCLB, in both reading and math (Linn 2003; Linn, Baker, and Herman 2002). In addition, due to requirements that all demographic groups make AYP, several studies have concluded that schools with more integrated student bodies are far more likely to fail than schools that lack diversity (Kane and Staiger 2002; Novak and Fuller 2003). Adding to the confusion, states' definitions of proficiency vary wildly, making it difficult to make meaningful state-to- state comparisons (Kingsbury et al. 2003).

The AYP provisions further reflect the flawed reason- ing behind NCLB by assuming that schools already have adequate resources to get all students to a profi- cient level, if they would only use those resources bet- ter. The implication is that administrators and teachers are not working hard enough, not working well, or both. Thus, with willpower and effort, schools and dis- tricts can bootstrap their way to unprecedented results. This reasoning ignores real factors that impede improvements in teaching and learning, such as large

class sizes, inadequate books, and outmoded technol- ogy, as well as nonschool factors like poverty and high student mobility.

The Limits of Test Scores

For NCLB proponents, the law's near-total reliance on test scores to determine the progress of students, teachers, and schools reflects a desire for objective assessments of educational outcomes. For example, President Bush has said, "Without yearly testing, we don't know who is falling behind and who needs help. Without yearly testing, too often we don't find failure until it is too late to fix" (Bush 2001). But standardized test scores offer nothing more than snapshots, often fuzzy ones, of student achievement at a single moment in time. When used to make important decisions about students and schools, they can be misleading and dam- aging. Moreover, good teachers already know which students are falling behind.

The national obsession with using standardized test scores to drive school improvement and reform is not new. Education researchers have examined this trend only to come up with results that cast serious doubts about the efficacy of test-based reform. Among the findings:

* Test scores do not necessarily indicate real progress when they rise or deterioration when they fall. Annual fluctuations should not be used to reward or sanction schools, teachers or school officials (Haney 2002).

* Many of the tests used to judge our students, teach- ers, and schools are norm-referenced, meaning they are specifically designed to ensure a certain propor- tion of "failures" (Haney 2002).

* Errors in question design, scoring and reporting have always been a part of standardized testing and are likely to increase substantially with the increase in testing mandated by NCLB (Rhoades and Madaus 2003).

NCLB's rigid AYP mechanism and the sanctions it triggers exacerbate standardized exams' weaknesses, such as their cultural biases, their failure to measure higher-order thinking, and the problem of measure- ment error. Exams with such narrow scopes and strong sanctions promote intensive teaching to the test, which undermines efforts to improve educational quality (von Zastrow 2004).

As one seventh-grade Kentucky student explained, "The test is taking away the real meaning of school. Instead of learning new things and getting tools for life, the mission of the schools is becoming to do well on the test" (Mathison 2003).

Even before NCLB became law, there was ample evi- dence that many of its assumptions and the model on which it was based had fundamental flaws:

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14 The Clearing House September/October 2004

* Little evidence supports the idea that the model of standards, testing, and rewards and punishments for achievement is the cure for public schooling's ail- ments. On the contrary, several studies show a decline in achievement in states with high-stakes testing programs relative to those with low-stakes testing (Stecher, Hamilton, and Gonzalez 2003; Amrein and Berliner 2002).

* Surveys of educators confirm that the model pro- motes teaching to the test and narrowed curricula, particularly in schools that serve low-income and minority students (Pedulla et al. 2003; Clarke et al. 2002).

* Independent analysts have found that tests often fail to measure the objectives deemed most important by educators who determine academic standards. Thus, students taught to such tests will not be exposed to high-quality curricula, and the public will not be informed about student achievement rel- ative to those standards (Rothman et al. 2002).

* The instructional quality suffers under such a model because it is often assumed that all students who fail need the same type of remediation. On the con- trary, researchers have found that students fail for a variety of reasons and need different instructional approaches to get on track (Riddle Buly and Valen- cia 2002; Moon, Callahan, and Tomlinson 2003; Hinde 2003; Mabry et al. 2003).

* Research refutes the assumption that low-achieving students are motivated to work harder and learn more in a high-stakes context. On the contrary, low- achieving students are most likely to become dis- couraged and give up in that environment (Harlen and Deakin-Crick 2002; Ryan and La Guardia 1999).

* There is evidence of falling graduation rates in high- stakes states, as well as evidence that schools retain additional students in hopes of reaping higher test scores in key grades. Decades of research support the contention that retained students are more likely to drop out of school (Haney 2003).

Within its more than one thousand pages, NCLB does include some potentially helpful provisions. However, the law's flaws overwhelm them and end up damaging educational quality and equity. For example:

* NCLB calls for multiple measures that assess higher- order thinking and are diagnostically useful. However, these provisions are neither enforced nor embedded in most state practices.

* The law mandates school (or district) improve- ment plans. In practical terms, however, improve- ment means boosting test scores. Disruptive sanc- tions based on unrealistic rates of AYP deny schools the opportunity to see if their own improvement efforts work.

Another potentially useful component of NCLB is the call for high-quality teachers for all students. Unfortunately, the law's requirements fall short of the attractive label: A teacher may be deemed "highly qual- ified" if she or he has a bachelor's degree and passes a paper-and-pencil standardized exam. This minimal definition can in no way ensure that all children have good teachers.

There is no persuasive evidence demonstrating a strong relationship between passing a standardized test and being competent in the classroom. A National Academy of Sciences report, Testing teaching candidates: The role of licensure tests in improving teacher quality, offers the most comprehensive study of this issue. It found that raising cut-off scores on the exams may reduce racial diversity in the teaching profession with- out improving quality (Mitchell et al. 2001). Further- more, the study concludes that the tests cannot "pre- dict who will become effective teachers" (FairTest 2001).

NCLB, however, allows groups such as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) to promote quick and inadequate fixes. For example, the group offers a standardized test as a solution to the serious problem low-income areas have attracting strong teachers to their schools (Jacobson 2004). ABCTE is a project of the conservative, pro-NCLB Edu- cation Leaders Council, cofounded by Department of Education Deputy Secretary Eugene Hickok. ABCTE has received roughly $40 million in federal support for this scheme, although two of the three members of the department's own review panel rejected it.

A strong definition of "highly qualified" ensures that teachers work successfully with a variety of stu- dents to attain a range of important outcomes, not just test scores. And although NCLB does contain some good ideas for improving the teaching force, such as mentoring and ongoing professional development, they must be separated from the drive to narrow schooling to test preparation. These favorable ele- ments easily could become key parts of a revamped accountability and school improvement system that would replace NCLB.

NCLB also harms rather than helps schools in need in other ways. Sanctions intended to force school improvement eventually divert funds away from efforts to help all children succeed toward helping a few par- ents obtain transfers and tutoring for their children. The law's ultimate sanctions-privatizing school man- agement, firing staff, state takeovers, and similar mea- sures-have no proven record of success.

As many educators have pointed out, the federal gov- ernment has failed to adequately fund the law (National Conference of State Legislatures 2004). Just as schools are hit with the demands of the current law, most states' edu- cation budgets are shrinking. Worse, neither federal nor

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Vol. 78, No. 1 Failing Our Children 15

state governments address either the dearth of resources required to bring all children to educational proficiency or the deepening poverty that continues to hinder some children's learning.

A Movement for Authentic Accountability These problems have catalyzed a growing movement

seeking to overhaul NCLB. State officials, parents, teachers, and students are mobilizing against the law. Unfortunately, some efforts, such as proposals to mod- ify the AYP formula or spend more money without changing the law, seek only to minimize the damage caused by NCLB and would further perpetuate educa- tional inequality. Others address only peripheral issues rather than the law's faulty premises and assumptions.

Effective opposition to NCLB must embrace genuine accountability, stronger equity, and concrete steps toward school improvement. FairTest has been work- ing with educators, civil rights organizations, parent groups, and researchers across the nation to devise new models of accountability. Based on a set of draft prin- ciples, core elements of a better accountability system include:

1. Getting federal, state, and local governments to worh together to provide a fair opportunity for all children to learn a rich curriculum. Current governments have failed to meet this fundamental accountability requirement because they have not ensured ade- quate, equitable funding and have overemphasized test scores.

2. Using multiple forms of evidence to assess student learn- ing. If we want to know how well students are doing, we need to look at a range of real student work. If we want students to learn more or better, we have to provide teachers and students with useful feedback based on high-quality classroom assessments that reflect the various ways children really learn.

3. Focusing on helping teachers and schools ensure educa- tional success for all students. Reaching that goal requires schools to be safe, healthy, supportive, and challenging environments. This means providing schools with data that can help improve academic and social aspects of education and making certain that the schools are equipped to use the data.

4. Localizing the primary accountability mechanisms. These mechanisms must involve educators, parents, stu- dents, and the local community. Open, participatory processes, including local school councils, annual reports, and meetings to review school progress, are necessary.

5. Focusing the primary responsibility of state governments to provide tools and support for schools and teachers while maintaining equity and civil rights. Intervention should take place only when localities have been given adequate resources and support but still fail to

improve performance or when uncorrected civil rights violations occur.

In the short term, NCLB's rigid AYP provisions and draconian penalties should be amended. States should no longer have to annually test all students in grades 3-8 in reading and math, and the amount of required testing should be reduced. Additional measures of school performance and student learning should be included in progress evaluations. Congress also should appropriate the full amount authorized under NCLB.

FairTest's report, Failing our children, uses work in Nebraska and the Massachusetts Coalition for Authen- tic Reform in Education's community-based assess- ment systems as models in the construction of a differ- ent approach to accountability.

More fundamentally, policymakers must seriously consider both the damage that NCLB has wrought and the problem of inadequate educational funding around the nation. They should begin by listening to the voices of educators, parents, and community people asking for high-quality education, not test preparation, for children.

Stripped of its bureaucratic language, NCLB is a fun- damentally punitive law that uses flawed standardized tests to label many schools as failures and then pun- ishes them with harmful sanctions. NCLB must be transformed into a law that supports lasting educa- tional improvement and makes good on the promise, in the words of the Children's Defense Fund, to "leave no child behind."

Key words: accountability, No Child Left Behind, testing


FairTest's report on NCLB, Failing our children: How "No Child Left Behind" undermines quality and equity in education and an account- ability model that supports school improvement, is available at


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