By Joseph Rosenbloom
International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
The book's title is a mocking lament: "Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools."
Written by education activists and published by Beacon Press here in September, the book echoes the continuing grumblings in some academic circles about the No Child Left Behind Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law three years ago to prod improvements in U.S. public schools.
In particular, the book zeroes in on the concept of test-based accountability, which the law embodies. That idea has been riding a wave of political support in Washington and state capitols for more than a decade, culminating in enactment of No Child Left Behind four years ago. It passed Congress with broad bipartisan approval; the Senate favored it on a vote of 87-10.
In his State of the Union address on Feb. 2, Bush hailed what he portrayed as the law's success, saying that "standards are higher, test scores are on the rise and we're closing the achievement gap for minority students."
The day before, Bush's newly installed secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, said that the law's testing component is "the linchpin of the whole doggone thing."
But the authors of "Many Children Left Behind," along with leaders of some civil rights organizations and educators' professional associations, are deploring what they say are the harmful effects of "high-stakes tests."
By that they mean federal or state programs that mandate schools to use standardized tests to measure academic achievement, combined with sanctions against schools or students depending on the results.
No Child Left Behind, for example, requires yearly testing in grades three to nine and at least one year of high school to rate students' progress. Schools whose average test scores do not measure up are subject to being ordered to pay for extra tutoring or student transfers to other schools and, ultimately, to being turned over to state or private management. Bush proposes extending the law to cover three years of high school.
The intellectual rebuttal to the high-stakes testing regime, to use the critics' term, is detailed in "Many Children Left Behind," a compendium of seven essays. The book's authors argue, among other things, that such an approach crudely evaluates performance, punishes schools for deep-seated social problems beyond their capacity to remedy and causes teachers to narrow their curriculum and adopt a short-sighted "test-prep" strategy at the expense of real learning.
"High-stakes tests are wooden assessments that are so detached from reality, especially in schools serving poor students, that it's outrageous," Theodore Sizer, a contributor to "Many Children Left Behind," said in a recent interview.
Besides Sizer, a visiting professor at Harvard and Brandeis Universities and a former Brown University professor, other contributors include Deborah Meier, founder of schools for low-income students in Boston and New York City and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, and Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University.
As the prestige of the authors suggests, the book's message reflects a strong current of continuing opposition among American education thinkers to the trend toward test-based accountability.
"Within education schools, my view is distinctly a minority view," acknowledged Robert Schwartz, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who supports the trend.
Studies of high-stakes testing show that they tend to produce higher rates of students dropping out or being held back to repeat a grade, and those who fall by the wayside are disproportionately African-Americans and Latinos, according to Darling-Hammond of Stanford.
"Schools can get rewarded for pushing students out," she said. "If you get rid of the lowest-achieving kids, your average will go up. You are not necessarily improving achievement. You may be just getting rid of the lowest achievers."
In rebuttal, Schwartz said, "There's very little evidence that I have seen that's definitive on that subject." He referred to the finding that test-based accountability results in higher dropout rates.
By long-standing American tradition - epitomized in the legendary extreme of the one-room schoolhouse on the prairie - teachers and local school boards are entitled to a large measure of autonomy. Unlike the educational systems, say, in France and Germany, there was relatively little centralized control over U.S. public schools.
The earliest embrace by the states of standardized exit tests as a qualification for a high school diploma dates to the 1970s. The trend has accelerated as the overall performance of American students has deteriorated, compared to the scores of their counterparts from other industrialized nations.
By the time that No Child Left Behind took effect, in 2002, about half of the 50 states already had instituted a standardized exit exam as one yardstick to determine eligibility for graduation.
"Decentralizing the setting of standards to individual schools had resulted in a lot of inequities," Schwartz said. Test-based accountability "is the most powerful lever we have that's driving the system to get better," he added.
Elaborating on that point during a panel discussion that Schwartz moderated at Harvard last summer, William Moloney, the Colorado education commissioner, noted that five years of such testing in his state "have seen Anglo students at twice the level of African-Americans. When the metro dailies picked that up, that drove change for minority kids in those neighborhoods."
Moloney added that "absent embarrassment, you will see no change."
Darling-Hammond countered recently: "That argument has been put forth for more than 10 years and it just hasn't proven to be true."
Some leading civil rights advocates bemoan the trend toward test-based accountability, but not all of them do. Spellings's African-American predecessor as Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, often touted No Child Left Behind as the key to closing the "achievement gap" and as the United States' most crucial civil rights initiative.
Among those opposed to No Child Left Behind is the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Julian Bond. He decried the law at the association's national convention in July, saying that the testing program was disproportionately harming minority children.
Two Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania and Representative Major Owens of New York, raised the issue squarely with Bush at a White House meeting last month, according to Paul Braithwaite, the caucus's executive director.
"You can't have a test until students are prepared," Braithwaite quoted Fattah and Owens as having said to Bush.
The testing features of No Child Left Behind continue to rankle many educational professionals as well. A critique of the law as "overemphasizing standardized testing" and "narrowing curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation rather than richer academic learning" was endorsed last October by the National Educators Association, which represents 2.7 million educators.
All told, 45 education, civil rights, children's and other groups have supported that position since October, said Monty Neill, co-executive director of Fair Test, an education advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the prime mover behind the statement.
The list includes such other major educators' associations as the American Association of School Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English and National School Boards Association.
Conspicuously missing is the 1.3-million member American Federation of Teachers, which has supported the accountability principles of No Child Left Behind but has cooled on some aspects of its implementation.
A paramount concern of the educators' associations that endorsed the white paper, according to Neill, was the law's having established a "set of punishments that are likely to be counterproductive and demoralizing of the teaching force."
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