Standardized Testing and NCLB

I periodically offer reading suggestions for a parent newsletter, so I thought I’d share them here, too, in their fuller and perhaps, at least sometimes, more opinionated form. Last week, I chose a theme of standardized testing and the so-called No Child Left Behind Act.

Testing and Standards: A Brief Encyclopedia by Sandra Wilde is a tiny gem of a book (95 three-quarters-sized pages) that will make readers conversant in all the important aspects of standardized testing from accountability and authenticity to validity, from technical, statistical aspects to emotional and political topics. As an encyclopedia, entries are presented alphabetically and follow a format with such headings for each entry as “what it means”, “examples,” and “what you need to know about it.”

America’s “Failing” Schools by W. James Popham starts out as an even-handed look at the goals stated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the effects of differential implementation by individual states. The last chapter offers questions and a plan for readers to use to investigate whether their own state’s implementation of NCLB is what he calls “defensible.”

If you read Many Children Left Behind, edited by Deborah Meier and George Wood, I think you will see very little possibility for a “defensible” implementation of NCLB. In her chapter, Linda Darling-Hammond points out how meeting NCLB’s ostensible goals are in many cases logically impossible, or simply impossible by definition.* She and other contributors lke Stan Karp and George Wood illustrate how the law penalizes rather than helps schools who serve more diverse populations. I thought this would be an easier read than something say by Jonathan Kozol, but I was crying by page 8. While several of the contributors acknowledge the need for some of the goals of NCLB, such as closer attention to access to the general curriculum for all students, all point out that NCLB’s provisions undermine these goals. Monty Neill of FairTest lays out alternative ways for schools to show accountability and improvement towards equitable education for all students. Taken all together, what leaps out is the hypocrisy that an administration which demands scientifically-based education practices (defining scientifically-based very narrowly as randomized control-group studies in many ways inappropriate to social research) would have enacted a huge law with little or no valid research to uphold the far-reaching implications of its expensive implementation. In fact, the provisions of NCLB misuse and misinterpret test scores in ways that go against what ample research studies have shown. Then as several essays in this book illustrate with different data, NCLB provisions punish rather than help the schools it identifies as inadequate. Let’s listen when contributors Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier urge us to accept responsibility for the commonwealth and engage in the democracy that educates its citizens, and our children.

*Or you can just read current news articles. For one example, NCLB provisions can designate high-performing schools as “failing.” If you’re from Minnesota especially you may be all too familiar with this phenomenon. Here’s one in California (note the reference to calculators).

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