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•Are the 50 states, each of which devises its own annual tests and curriculum standards, setting the bar high enough for students, and if not, what should be done about it?
•Is the focus on reading and math distorting and narrowing education?
•Do the law's requirements for teacher qualifications make sense, and are they raising the quality of the U.S. teaching force?
•Are the directives aimed at failing schools having the intended impact? What is the right role for the Federal Government in fixing bad schools?
In addition to these policy questions, there's the matter of money. The states have complained bitterly that NCLB imposes its many mandates without the federal funds originally promised to implement them. Providing more money for NCLB is a key goal for the Democrats, who control Congress, and is almost certainly part of their price for reauthorizing the law. A look at some of the more challenging issues:
HOW SHOULD WE MEASURE LEARNING?
The heart and soul of No Child Left Behind are its requirements for annual testing and proof that students of every stripe are making adequate yearly progress. AYP is as basic to U.S. education as ABC, but most thoughtful educators object to the way it's measured. One of the biggest problems: there are too many ways to fail, even when a school is moving in the right direction.
Consider the case of Bud Carson Middle School in Hawthorne, Calif. In 2005 the school, which is 92% Latino and black, pulled out the stops to reverse its failing record and hit 20 out of its 21 AYP goals, lifting scores for blacks, Hispanics and special-ed students; closing achievement gaps; and raising attendance. Nonetheless, the school remained on the "needs improvement" list that year because it narrowly missed the reading-score goal for its English-language learners. (Happily, it made AYP a year later.)
Jack O'Connell, California's superintendent of public instruction, is one of many administrators around the country who find the AYP system too inflexible, too arbitrary and too punitive. Some California schools, he says, have made huge progress, but because they did not make AYP they are required to help students transfer to another school. "So," he laments, "we have to take away resources that we can document are improving achievement and put them into transportation to bus kids to other schools."
In addition, the do-or-die AYP system creates perverse incentives. It rewards schools that focus on kids on the edge of achieving grade-level proficiency--like those 11 students in Blaine's math-review class. There's no incentive for schools to do much of anything for the kids who are on grade level or above, which is one reason the law is unpopular in wealthier, high-achieving communities. And sadly, says O'Connell, "NCLB provides no incentive to work on the kids far below the bar."
Sterling Garris, principal at Blaine, has plenty of such low achievers at his school. As he walked down the hallway on a recent spring day, an elated reading teacher came rushing up to him with a third-grader who, she exclaimed, had jumped four reading levels. Garris offered the boy his hearty congratulations, but later he ruefully noted that the achievement won't be recognized under the terms set by NCLB. "This child has had tremendous growth, but he'll still bomb the PSSA test because he isn't on grade level," says Garris. What's worse, a child who has worked so hard will be stuck with a sense of failure. At test time, says Garris, "some kids get so frustrated they cry."
What's the alternative to AYP? Most educators, Garris included, prefer a more flexible measure of student improvement known as the growth model. In this approach, schools track the progress of each student year to year. Success is defined by a certain amount of growth, even if the student isn't on grade level. So a child like that Blaine third-grader would be judged a success--and his teachers and school would get credit for his achievement. "The growth model," says O'Connell, "is a much more accurate portrayal of a school's performance."
Spellings says she appreciates the need for "a more nuanced accountability system," and her department is testing the growth model in North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas and Delaware. The main sticking point, she says, is having a data-management system that can accurately track the performance of individual students statewide. Another sticking point, she says, is ensuring that growth doesn't replace the goal of moving kids up to grade level. "Growth models have to be within what I call the bright-line principles of the law, which is grade-level proficiency by 2014. Moving the goalposts is not what we are talking about."
CAN WE TRUST THE STATES TO SET STANDARDS?
But moving the goalposts may be inevitable. Decreeing that all kids (except 1% with serious disabilities and an additional 2% with other issues) must be proficient by 2014 is a little like declaring that all the children are above average in the mythical town of Lake Wobegon. California has some of the toughest K-12 curriculum standards in the nation, and O'Connell despairs of hitting the 2014 goal. "Today we don't have any of our schools with 100% student proficiency, and I will predict that we won't by 2014," he says. "Right now about one-quarter of our kids have to be proficient [to make AYP], but soon it's going to be increased 12% a year until 2014. You have to question the accountability system when 100% of your schools are going to be failing, by definition."
There are, however, two surefire ways to hit the 2014 target. One is for schools to cheat on the tests--a frighteningly commonplace solution, according to David Berliner, a respected education scholar at Arizona State University and a co-author of a new book, Collateral Damage, that documents the cheating trend. The other solution is to make the state tests easier, a phenomenon known among educators as "the race to the bottom." Philadelphia's Vallas likes to joke that there are two paths to success for his city's schools: improve instruction for students "or give them the Illinois tests."
Or better yet, Mississippi's. In 2005, 89% of fourth-graders in Mississippi were rated proficient in reading--the highest percentage in the nation. But when Mississippi youngsters sat for the rigorous NAEP--the closest thing to a national gold standard--they landed at the bottom: just 18% of fourth-graders made the grade in reading. States that have a tough curriculum and correspondingly tough exams--such as California and Massachusetts--are delivering a more rigorous education, but they're setting themselves up to fail in NCLB's terms.