No School Left Unpressured
These are just a few of the less-than-flattering words used to describe the federal No Child Left Behind Act in a "town hall" meeting on the UT campus. The overwhelming consensus: If it's not modified, NCLB will destroy public education. The meeting featured two AISD elementary principals Palm's Norma Silva Quinn and Matthews' Ben Kramer (currently on leave), as well as UT curriculum professor O.L. Davis Jr., and National Academy of Education President Nel Noddings. Each offered their own critique of NCLB, a very complex law that, in essence, penalizes schools whose students perform poorly on standardized tests.
The panelists agreed that placing pressure on schools to get their students to pass the tests leads schools to focus on test-prep to the exclusion of a rich, varied curriculum. For example, Kramer told of one AISD school where teachers cut sections out of the AP curriculum to do more drilling for the multiple-choice TAKS tests. "Not only is this dumb, it's mind-numbingly dull," he said. But worse, pressure to test well means schools have an incentive to do all they can to raise scores. For example, because the test scores of a few students can bump a school from failing to acceptable, the panelists said, many schools focus their energies on students with borderline scores, leaving those who are sure to pass, and those who are likely to fail, to languish.
In some places, a "bulge" in the number of ninth-graders suggests many students are being held back so they won't hold down crucial 10th-grade test scores. While NCLB proponents would say this shows the act is working that is, it's ending "social promotion" the panelists pointed out that holding kids back makes them more likely to drop out. But, since dropouts no longer take the tests, schools have an incentive to perhaps not do all in their power to keep them in school. The law also requires every child to test "proficient" in core subjects by 2013-14. While this is an admirable goal, the panelists pointed out that the realities of life in low-income communities make this an impossible task. Silva Quinn told of one third-grader at her school who lives in a homeless shelter where the noise of the cockroaches keeps him up at night, and leaves him falling asleep in class.
While all agreed that schools have a duty to help children like him, Noddings argued that high-stakes testing is not the way to do it. "What we're doing now laying this monstrous system on our public schools is a monumental distraction from the social problems that are at the root of poor performance," she said.