Janresseger: No Child Left Behind Has Not Worked. Why?

Congress has begun to hold hearings to consider, yet again, a reauthorization of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB is the most recent reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed NCLB into law, the federal government radically shifted educational philosophy.  The emphasis moved away from supporting the education of under-served groups of children through compensatory funding programs like Title I and toward a new plan: holding schools accountable for continually improving test scores for all children.  It hasn’t worked.

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) released data this week to document that NCLB has not lifted school achievement.  The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is conducted independently—apart from accountability-based testing of every child by states under NCLB.  The NAEP is administered across the states to random samples of children across the grade levels.  Its purpose is to measure overall trends in public schools across our cities, suburbs, towns and rural areas.

Here is what NAEP data show: “Overall and for demographic groups such as Blacks, Hispanics and English language learners… progress was generally faster in the decade before NCLB began to take effect than since… Scores for 17-year-olds have stagnated.  NAEP scores were highest for Blacks, and gaps the narrowest, in 1988.  Hispanic scores and gaps have stagnated since NCLB.  Score gaps in 2012 were no narrower and often wider than they were in 1998 and 1990.  Score gains slowed after NCLB for English language learners….”

This week as Congress began to discuss reauthorization of the test-and-punish NCLB, the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable released a major report, The Iceberg Effect: An International Look at Often-Overlooked Education Indicators, alleging that public school achievement levels across demographic groups in the United States are merely the visible tip of an iceberg, but that the causal factors of school achievement remain hidden under the water line: inequality, social stress and violence, the level of support for schools, and the level of support for young families.  The authors compare social and economic conditions, social policy and school funding across nine nations, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The researchers compare the nine societies and educational systems on six indicators:

  1. The United States ranks 8th when measured on an economic equity index, comprised of measures of income inequality, child poverty, infant mortality, and intergenerational economic mobility.
  2. The United States ranks 9th in the category of social stress, calculated by measuring violent deaths per 100,000 population, death from drugs, percentage of population that is foreign born, and births to women between 15 and 19 years old.
  3. The United States ranks 8th in the category of support for families, measured by social expenditure as a percentage of GDP, benefits for young families, access to preschool, and the number of children’s deaths from abuse or neglect.
  4. The United States does better at 4th (though it is important to remember that this is an average across the varied states) in the category of overall support for schools, as measured by expenditures-per-pupil, school expenditure as a percent of GDP, class size, and hours teachers spend teaching.
  5. The United States ranks 5th in student outcomes, as measured by the PIRLS international test of 4th grade reading, the PISA international test of the reading level of 15-year-olds, school completion “on time + 2 years,” and the society’s socio-economic achievement gap as measured by the PISA international test.
  6. The United States ranks 1st on a final outcome the researchers call system outcomes, as measured by the average years of schooling among adults, the percentage of adults who have graduated from high school, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree, and the “global share of PISA high achievers in science.”

The researchers conclude: “Based on the indicators included in this study, it seems clear that the United States has the most highly educated workforce among these 9 nations.  At the same time, American society reveals the greatest economic inequities among the advanced nations in this analysis, combined with the highest levels of social stress, and the lowest levels of support for young families…  And we have the enormous challenge of the achievement gap to deal with.” (emphasis in original)

The authors challenge our society’s test-based school accountability system that fails to look beneath the tip of the iceberg: “Simply developing a scoreboard without identifying the societal factors that influence results does not help the education system become more legitimately accountable to those it serves.”

The authors of The Iceberg Effect are not likely to be surprised at FairTest’s conclusion that NCLB’s test-and-punish strategy has failed to lift school achievement and close achievement gaps:  “Too often…  we narrow our focus to a few things that are easily tested. We become captives of the results and our goal becomes raising test scores rather than raising fully educated people. To avoid that mentality, we want to emphasize the power of a consistent and comprehensive framework that looks at all the measures involved in shaping our future citizens and the future of our nation.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...