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Friday, March 18, 2005

NCLB: Noble Concept Gone Awry

by William E. Davis, Ph.D., Director, Institute for the Study of Students At Risk, College of Education and Human Development, The University of Maine.

Your recent editorial, Room To Improve NCLB (Feb. 26-27) succinctly and accurately addresses many of the key problems related to this national educational reform law, particularly those involving its critical Adequately Yearly Progress (AYP) accountability provision. As cited in your editorial, the National Conference of State Legislatures Final Report on NCLB, just released, offered several constructive
criticisms of NCLB along with specific recommendations to remedy its shortcomings. Many of the recommendations for improvement are sound, particularly those involving the need for increased financial support and for greater flexibility at the state and local levels. However, it is suggested that the problems with NCLB are much more substantial and more pervasive.
The stated overall goal of NCLB is to close or dramatically narrow the achievement gap among all American students: between poor kids and affluent kids; between racial/ethnic minority students and White students; between students with disabilities and non-disabled students; between immigrant children and those children born in this country. A noble goal, indeed. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that many of policies and practices that have been put in place in American schools in an effort to conform with NCLB provisions are destined to produce severe, negative consequences for the very students this law was designed to help: those students assumed to be at greatest risk for dropping out of school.
The major underlying problem with NCLB is that it confuses “measuring” students and schools for “helping” them. The laudable standards-based educational reform effort has degenerated into little more than a “standardized testing” movement. Clearly, valid and reliable assessments are important, and indeed, necessary - primarily to inform instruction. However, NCLB currently has transformed into a “test and punish” law. Seemingly countless are the numbers of ways that students and schools can be deemed “failing” as a result of this test-driven law.
Frequently lost sight of in discussions involving the AYP provision of NCLB is the “third indicator” of academic achievement [in addition to reading and math proficiency] required for high schools to meet AYP accountability - the high school graduation rate. This provision was intended to serve as a safeguard to discourage schools from raising the achievement levels by “pushing out” lower-performing students. However, U.S. Department of Education regulations and guidelines issued since the passage of NCLB, have gradually “watered down” the “high school graduation rate” indicator of academic improvement required for AYP accountability. First, states are required only to set a graduation rate for students in the aggregate. States are not required to collect and report graduation data by subgroups which is not the case for collecting and reporting academic testing data (achievement test scores in reading and math).
Second, yearly progress is strictly required in “test scores” but to a much lesser extent with respect to graduation rates. Schools and districts need only to set a fixed goal for graduation rates, which can be whatever a state chooses it to be - 50 percent, 40 percent. 90 percent, or whatever. These actions arguably provide strong support for the argument that NCLB is being interpreted essentially as a test-driven accountability measure. The graduation academic indicator largely is being ignored. It is suggested that this can have devastating consequences for many of our nation's students who are considered to be at “high risk” for dropping out. Given the nation's unacceptably low high school completion rate[suggested to be 68 percent according to one recent study] it is critical that we need to pay more attention to those students who are most likely to drop out of school - and to provide them with both the academic and the social supports that they require to remain in school.
As stated by Gary Orfield , Director of the Civil Rights Project, Harvard University (2004), “The real incentive exits for schools to discharge or push out these students [low academically achieving students] -- or to encourage these students to leave school early in order to keep schools from being sanctioned. Without a strong graduation rate requirement as a measure of AYP -- schools can simply continue to focus on academic tests - deal with a smaller number of achieving students -- and other students will be lost. Why? Because whether these students actually graduate or not is not being recognized or valued as a measure of AYP.”
Another very disturbing consequence of NCLB is suggested to be the large increase in the number of students who are being retained in grade because of their academic problems, failure to pass required assessments etc. Results of several recent studies yield strong evidence that student grade retentions in many of our schools have significantly increased since the passage of NCLB, with its high stakes testing and its discouraging of social promotion provisions. The results of one recent study (Haney et. al, 2004) indicated that the national attrition rate for students between the ninth and tenth grades has nearly tripled [students are disappearing between the ninth grade and tenth grade] strongly suggesting that significantly larger numbers of students are being retained in the ninth grade. Promoting students who are not adequately prepared certainly is not the solution. However, it is clear that neither is retention.
Virtually all empirical studies conducted to date suggest that retention, even in the lower elementary grades, significantly increases the likelihood of dropping out of school. It has been widely reported that even one retention strongly increases the likelihood of a student dropping out [four times the likelihood] and that more than one retention almost assures that a student will eventually drop out. The current high academic achievement and high-stakes testing educational reform movement, one which discourages social promotion, and, as many researchers suggest, encourages student retention, presumably will have a major impact on the number of students who drop out of school and who will fail to receive their regular high school diploma - widely regarded a minimum requirement for successfully “making it in today's society.” Arguably, increasing numbers of students will leave school early.
Finally, several national studies have identified the most important features or elements common among successful student dropout prevention programs. An academically challenging curriculum was one important element identified. Skilled and committed teachers who have the administrative support, encouragement, and flexibility to provide students with an intensive and highly individualized program (both academically and socially) was another element identified. However, by far, the most important element identified in these studies was the importance of close, personal relationships between teachers and students. One might seriously question, given the excessive demands and expectations currently being placed on today's teachers as a result of NCLB., as well as Maine's own additional student testing requirements, just how much time and energy will be left for real teacher-student personalization. Unfortunately, I suspect, in many cases, very little.
As suggested in your editorial piece, it is encouraging that rigorous reviews currently are underway to improve key provisions of NCLB, most notably its AYP provision. This is a good start. However, I suggest that the real problems with NCLB are more substantive and pervasive - essentially its “test and punish” underling assumption. In order to remedy these problems, it likely will require a good deal more than “tweaking aspects” of the law. In its present framework, NCLB is attempting to apply a “one-size fits all” solution for the multiple and complex problems being faced by many of our nation's, and Maine's, most vulnerable children and youth -- and their schools.

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