This is an interesting article documenting the impact of accountability and high-stakes testing policies. Notable line: "The law is unpopular with much of the public. In a recent Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll, two-thirds of U.S. adults said the next president should significantly change No Child Left Behind or abandon it."
by Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian
Saturday August 30, 2008
As most of Oregon's 570,000 students head back to class this week, they will report to schools that have been deeply changed by six years of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The law has put unprecedented pressure on public schools to get students to read and do math at their grade level, and educators have responded by digging into test results, spending more time teaching those two subjects and targeting students who score "on the bubble" just below grade level.
As a result, many schools put less emphasis on science, music, writing and other subjects and do less to spur high-achieving students to strive higher.
The landmark federal law has made its biggest impact on special education students, low-income students and those learning English as a second language. It has recast the definition of a successful school from one with high average test scores to one that gets a big chunk of those students to read and do math at grade level.
Despite widespread complaints among educators, the law has helped those students, whose test scores have risen steadily as schools put more resources and strategies into their learning.
"NCLB has held our collective feet to the fire to say, 'What about every single kid?'" says Aeylin Summers, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the North Clackamas School District.
Congress is debating whether to renew the law, and much of the rhetoric about the law's day-to-day effects on schools has been exaggerated by both champions and critics.
No Child Left Behind has not led to huge achievement gains in Oregon or across the nation. Nor has it drummed creativity, the arts and project-based learning entirely out of class.
The law includes consequences for failure, but no Oregon school has been threatened with a loss of federal funds or been taken over by the state or been ordered to undergo wholesale faculty turnover.
Even though most middle and high schools are exempt from any real consequences, the law has motivated secondary school principals and teachers to dig into test scores in far greater detail and to put more energy into getting more students to read and do math well enough to pass the state tests.
"Really looking at (results for small groups of students) and making decisions and interventions based on that is something No Child Left Behind brought to us, and I don't think we'll ever move away from that again," Beaverton Superintendent Jerry Colonna says.
Critics see narrow focus
There are numerous drawbacks to No Child Left Behind, say those who have watched it unfold in Oregon schools.
High-achieving students often get less time and attention. Performance on state reading and math tests is given more weight than measurements such as in-depth classroom assignments, teacher-made tests and graduation rates.
"What you know about a kid's learning is very rigid and limited when all you have are these tests scores," says Summers of North Clackamas.
And then there's the question of whether educators do their best when they feel beat up.
Teachers and principals resent being labeled poor performers when their schools fall short of the law's high expectations of their hardest-to-serve students. Instead of recognizing the gains children make, the law drubs the school as inadequate, demoralizing teachers and parents.
"The punitive part of it makes people nervous, and when people are nervous, they can't really delve into focusing on the teaching and the learning," says Wei-Wei Lou, Beaverton schools' director of English as second language.
Susan Castillo, the Oregon Department of Education's superintendent of public instruction, has championed the law for shining a spotlight on the academic needs of disadvantaged students, but she complains about its "cookie cutter approach" to judging schools.
No Child Left Behind was signed into law by President Bush in 2001. Though Bush considers it his top domestic initiative, liberal lawmakers Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., also were key champions.
The idea was to raise achievement by using market forces, including school choice and private-sector tutoring companies, along with stepped-up federal money, particularly among low-income and minority students.
Its central provisions require schools to:
• Give reading and math tests every year from third grade through eighth grade plus once in high school.
• Report to parents and the public what percentage of students in a host of groups -- including minority students, special education students, low-income students and those learning English as a second language -- meet grade-level standards on those tests. Only students who are the newest immigrants or have the most severe disabilities can be exempted.
• Face escalating consequences if the school fails to meet even a single performance target. The federal government can mandate consequences only for schools that accept federal aid to help disadvantaged students.
States were free to impose consequences on all schools; Castillo chose not to. She says punishing schools is not the best way to encourage them to improve.
That created a two-tiered system under which schools that get federal aid -- primarily the 65 percent of elementary schools that serve medium or large numbers of low-income students -- are subject to consequences based on their test results, while the rest of schools, including all the state's big suburban high schools, are not.
If a school falls short two years in a row, it must allow students to transfer to a higher performing school in the district. If it fails again, it must also offer all its low-income students free tutoring. Subsequent failure means it must shake up the curriculum, the schedule or the faculty or make a similar change.
So far, more than 70 of Oregon's 1,200 public schools have been subject to one or more of those consequences. Only 12 of them have raised their achievement enough to get off the federal list of troubled schools.
More than 2,500 Oregon students -- most in Portland -- now attend a different public school under the law. An additional 2,000 students get free tutoring paid for by federal No Child Left Behind money.
East Gresham Elementary got the bad news in summer 2006. Because only one in three of its nonnative English speakers passed state reading tests, the school was branded inadequate and had to send letters to every parent explaining its shortcomings and offering to let the students transfer out.
To the faculty, that seemed unfair. They understood that schools should be graded -- they issue grades and report cards to their students all the time. But former Principal Tadd Gestrin says it seemed that their school was made to look bad because teachers took on big challenges at a school where two-thirds of the children are poor and a quarter are still learning English.
But with some extra federal money to help, East Gresham teachers started working in teams to ferret out the best information on how to help their students, including interviewing faculty at schools with similar demographics that were getting better results.
The school rewrote its schedule to spend two hours a day on reading, an hour on math and an hour on writing. Teachers began meeting regularly with other teachers to develop their best collective ideas to help students.
Teachers focused on student growth and learning instead of test scores. Nevertheless, scores rose dramatically, and the change for English language learners was stunning. Within a year, more than half were passing grade-level reading tests. The school managed to boost achievement even higher this year and was removed from the troubled schools list.
"When people work so hard for such a long time and you know that the work you are doing is making a difference in kids' lives ... that public acknowledgement feels good," says Gestrin, now a middle school administrator.
The law is unpopular with much of the public. In a recent Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll, two-thirds of U.S. adults said the next president should significantly change No Child Left Behind or abandon it.
Neither Sens. John McCain nor Barack Obama has released a detailed proposal for how he would rewrite No Child Left Behind. But few education leaders in Oregon expect the heightened accountability to go away.
Stacy Geale, principal of Beaver Acres Elementary in Beaverton, has no problem with that:
"For me, it raises the bar for children, it raises the bar for instruction and it raises the bar for my accountability, Why would I complain when it's raised the achievement level of our kids?"
How has No Child Left Behind changed Oregon?
January 2001: President Bush signs it into law
Summer 2003: Eight schools become the first to face consequences for failing to meet the law's performance targets. Four in Portland, three in Woodburn and one in Milton-Freewater must offer students priority transfers or free tutoring.
Fall 2003: The state issues its first No Child Left Behind ratings of every school, and 365 schools are rated inadequate. Educators reel as two-thirds of the state's high schools are labeled inadequate. Most on the list post low results for Latinos, low-income and special education students.
Spring 2005: Oregon adds standardized tests in reading and math in grades four, six and seven -- grades that previously had no state tests.
2006-07 school year: More than 2,500 students transfer out of low-scoring schools under the law. An additional 10,000 students qualify for free private tutoring because their school had low test scores, and more than 2,000 of them accept the offer.
August 2008: More than 430 Oregon schools fail to reach federal performance targets, their worst showing under the law. Thirty-six are ordered to offer transfers or tutoring.