Will This Be on the Test?
March 6, 2010 |  by Rich Shea
Kid at school


“SEVEN THOUSAND TEENS dropped out today.”

That was the bomb that U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter dropped in the middle of a lengthy appraisal of No Child Left Behind last December. She, along with five other panelists, had been invited by the Johns Hopkins School of Education to discuss, before an audience of more than 300 people, the future of NCLB, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 and is up for reauthorization this year.

As complex and controversial as the law is, Kanter’s citation of that one statistic—the equivalent of a 27 percent dropout rate nationwide—helped clarify just how high the stakes are in the discussion.

No one on the panel, which included three SOE professors, blamed NCLB specifically for all of those dropouts. But all agreed the law has done little to prevent them. What’s more, the speakers concluded, NCLB’s laserlike focus on reading and math standards actually hinders schools from adequately covering other subjects—science, social studies, the arts—that help prepare high school graduates for college and beyond.

One problem, said Robert Slavin, a panelist and director of SOE’s Center for Research and Reform in Education, is that NCLB is too punitive. Praised for holding public schools accountable by demanding that all students pass standardized tests, the law is also derided for unfairly punishing needy schools and forcing educators to “teach to the test”—thus leaving no room for innovation.

Compare education to the medical field, Slavin said: “We wouldn’t say, ‘Let’s close down all the research labs at Johns Hopkins and, instead, let’s beat up on the doctors who aren’t getting good results. Nobody would think of such a thing. What [the medical field does] is have a balance and say, ‘Let’s constantly be getting better and better and learning how to solve problems that we couldn’t solve before.’”

Mariale Hardiman, SOE’s interim dean and another panelist, proposed something she deemed “a little radical”: redefine the concept of “school.” Traditionally, it includes principals, teachers, and students—easy targets when critiquing a school’s performance. But Hardiman suggested adding parents and the surrounding community to the mix. “Think about this for a minute,” she said. “If we held entire communities—from businesses to institutions—accountable, would that accelerate the pace of school reform?”

Johns Hopkins Magazine followed up with the three SOE panelists—Slavin, Hardiman, and James McPartland—who in subsequent interviews shared their visions for what real school reform would look like.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND IS the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, which was signed into law 45 years ago by President Lyndon Johnson and has been reauthorized every several years since. For the first time, ESEA provided federal funding to the country’s neediest schools with the intent of leveling the educational playing field. But not until the enactment of NCLB was that funding linked to accountability.

The law demands that, in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in grades 10 to 12, a majority of each school’s students score “proficient” or above on standardized math and reading tests. A science assessment must also be administered at least once in the elementary, middle, and high school grades. Each year, the percentage of students who pass the tests must increase, so that a school can make Adequate Yearly Progress. Schools that fail to make AYP three years in a row are subject to remediation options, including state takeover.

“I’ve never heard any principal or teacher say that they should not be held accountable, or don’t want to know where kids are in reading and math,” says Hardiman, chair of SOE’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in Education. She spent 13 of her 34 years in Baltimore public schools as principal of the highly acclaimed Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. What many educators find unacceptable, she adds, is “the high-stakes accountability part.” By “high stakes,” she means that schools dedicate almost three-quarters of their year to preparing students for multiple-choice, or “bubble,” tests that measure mastery of a narrow set of skills.

After eight years, NCLB’s gains have been questionable, says Slavin. Tens of thousands of schools still fall short of making AYP each year, and varying “pass” rates among the states—which are free to create their own standards and tests—often produce dubious results. Texas, for example, reported in 2008 that 95 percent of its eighth-graders had passed its most recent reading test. Yet the latest results for the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, exams—administered every other year to select schools nationwide—show that only 28 percent of Texas’ eighth-graders are reading-proficient.

International comparisons do not make anyone feel better. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is administered to 15-year-olds worldwide every three years, measuring “literacy”—which includes critical-thinking and strategic skills—in reading, math, and science. In 2006, when the test’s focus was science, U.S. students scored just below the overall average, which put them behind 22 of the 56 participating countries. If such tests serve as a barometer for how American students will eventually perform in the global marketplace, then NCLB—with its focus on math and reading standards—is a “mismatch,” says Hardiman.

The problem with NCLB is that “it seems to focus, more than anything else, on the idea that teachers and school principals aren’t doing their jobs well enough,” she explains. But schools, including those in the low-income areas targeted for federal funding, are part of a community that includes parents, businesses, the local residents and government, and, in some cases, nearby universities. Because children are products of their upbringing and environment, Hardiman says these aspects of their lives should be included in the language used to define schools.

“We have to look broader than school failure,” Hardiman says, “because it’s really the community’s—it’s really our society’s—failure that we have such disparities in how children are achieving and learning.”