Grand illusions

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act establishes the lofty goal of holding schools to account for all children achieving "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014--now barely five years away. As the nation now faces up to what to do next, it needs to squarely face the fact that NCLB's authors conjured four illusions--possibly because they were engaged in self-delusion.

Two of these have been well documented by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association. First, the "high standards illusion," whereby states create the impression that most of their students are meeting expectations, but only by defining "proficiency" downward. And, second, the "equal treatment illusion," whereby NCLB gives the impression that we have a national approach to accountability; in reality, schools are treated quite differently in the various states. One that's deemed to be "failing" in state A can be seen as doing fine in state B. Thus, good schools may be branded failures and ineffective schools let off the hook, depending on where they're situated. The reputations of teachers can be unjustifiably harmed, and they can possibly lose their jobs. Students who need interventions may not get them and, since their schools may wrongly be identified as succeeding, could find themselves barred from transferring--as the law permits--from an ineffective school to a more effective one.

But two more illusions are also worth noting. First, there's the "identification of ineffective schools" illusion. NCLB creates the impression that it identifies "failing" (i.e. in need of improvement) schools. That does not happen, regardless of whether the standard is set high or low. The proficiency levels that schools are working to have students reach are based on point-in-time tests, given, for example, at the end of the eighth grade in reading. The results of that type of test reflect all student knowledge acquired since birth--from being read to, or not, in the home; from going to quality child care or not; from learning--or not--during grades K-7 and perhaps at a different school; and from having widely varying summer experiences in which reading achievement is gained or lost.

By the standard of Evaluation 101, this is no measure of the effectiveness or quality of a school, because it does not measure what the student learned during the eighth grade at that particular school. Also, since different students are involved from year to year, scores may go up or down because of population changes in the neighborhood--flight to the suburbs, for example.

This means that the consequences in NCLB are applied on nearly a random basis. Research has made clear that schools declared as failing on such point-in-time measures are a quite different set of schools than those declared to be failing on a "gain score" measure of the progress students made while in school.

Finally, there's the "prescribed remedies will improve education" illusion. The law creates the impression that it will trigger federally-required actions that make schools better and will raise achievement. For instance, when schools have not met their progress targets, students can transfer to schools that have. This remedy does not derive from research results or successful replication. If lower-scoring students transfer, do the scores in the schools they left go higher and students there show progress? And are the scores in the receiving schools dragged down by the lower-scoring students who transferred in, so that the "better" schools now become "worse" and get sanctioned the next time around? Of if higher-scoring students transfer, do scores in the schools they left sink lower even as they try to right the ship? At the time this was decided, no one knew how this might play out, and I suspect that no one knows today how it is playing out.

If a school fails to make the required progress over five years, the district must "restructure" it. Several options are specified, including the adoption of a remedy of the district's choice. This amounts to saying, "Don't just stay open; do something." These remedies are not tested approaches to turning schools around and are not based on knowledge of whether or not such moves improve schools and raise student achievement.

All of these realities need to be squarely faced; illusions will not suffice. Only when the right schools are identified for corrective actions and the right actions are taken will schools improve and student achievement rise. As the nation sets forth on a new education policy, there is a need to start from a full understanding of the current situation.

Paul E. Barton is an education writer and consultant. He is a former Director of the Education Testing Service (ETS) Policy Information Center and author of 'Failing' and ‘Succeeding' Schools: How Can We Tell?

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