A few thoughts about NCLB

Guest Blogger

A post from guest blogger and Fordham board member Diane Ravitch.

When No Child Left Behind was first passed, I supported it. It seemed to me a good idea to test kids in reading and math from grades 3 through 8; after all, if you don't have basic skills, you are severely limited in your ability to learn anything else. I could not, at first sight, see why anyone would object to establishing baseline goals for basic skills.

As the full consequences of the law have unfolded, I have begun to have second thoughts. I must say that my views changed very considerably after a daylong session in November 2006 at a conference that Rick Hess and Checker Finn organized at AEI called "Is the NCLB Toolkit Working?" The dozen or so papers presented that day all gave the same answer: No. If I recall correctly, less than 5 percent of eligible children were taking advantage of choice options; less than 20 percent of eligibles were utilizing after-school tutoring. The after-school tutoring seemed to be a swamp of incompetent providers and badly-administered programs, as best I could tell. I must say that the day was mind-changing for me.

I put those findings together with the increasing evidence that states were inflating their test scores to prove that they were well on their way to 100 percent proficiency (a phenomenon a Fordham Institute report called "The Proficiency Illusion"), and I began to recognize that NCLB was having some very ill effects on American education.

Then came the release of 2007 NAEP scores for the states, and I saw that the test score gains in reading and mathematics that predated NCLB (from 2000-2002 or 2000-2003) were larger than the test score gains since the passage of NCLB. Much ado about very little academic progress.

These are the reasons that I have come to believe that NCLB needs radical overhaul, not just tweaking. It is not working, and it has unleashed an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing, has promoted grade inflation by the states, has dumbed down education by its unremitting focus on basic skills and its narrowing of the curriculum. Hey, folks, there are just so many hours in the day and in the week, and if more and more of them are devoted to testing and prepping for tests, then there are fewer available for the study of history, literature, science, the arts, civics, geography, and foreign language.

I don't want my grandchildren to go to schools whose reputations ride solely on basic skills and not on their capacity to offer a rich and coherent program in the liberal arts and sciences.

If we continue in this mode, we will manage to produce a generation of kids who can pass the tests but are uneducated. We will also destroy American public education at the same time.

Stop defending NCLB. It has proven to be ineffective, harmful for kids, devoid of what matters most in education, hostile to knowledge-acquisition, and downright bad for the future of education.