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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Reading Specialist DeAnne Wilie works with second graders Alejandro Flores and Olivia Baarsma at Hillsdale Elementary School in West Valley City.

"When you get your book, put your finger on the title and stop."

Alejandro and Olivia, second-graders at Hillsdale Elementary School, dutifully follow Ms. Willie's instructions. They are working with Willie, a reading specialist, while their classmates are at recess. They read the book's title together, carefully enunciating each word: "A Nut in a Cup."

Soon the rest of Ms. Edelson's class will be filing in, damp and breathless from recess on this brisk January day in West Valley City. Students in some of the older grades are already on their way back, shoes squeaking on the hallway tiles. They make their way to class, passing casually by the pudgy cheerful snowman on the bulletin board who proclaims, "Snow many books … snow little time."

Unzipping puffy coats, they walk through a hallway adorned with special vocabulary: "identify," "predict," "estimate" — words chosen for the wall to help the students test well. Knowing them will help the kids fill out the right bubbles when they take Utah's annual CRTs — the state's standardized test — in June.

The kids at Hillsdale have a lot riding on knowing the words on the wall. The school serves a largely disadvantaged population; about 80 percent of its kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. Hillsdale, a dim, low-lying building on a quiet street, depends heavily on federal funding. With it the school hires reading specialists like Willie and provides services like after-school programming, breakfast and counseling to keep the school up and running and the students engaged.

And like every public school under the nationwide education policy No Child Left Behind, Hillsdale's funding is tied to its test scores.

As of this month, No Child Left Behind is 10 years old. It was supposed to be revolutionary and close the gap between the U.S.'s supposedly failing schools and the rest of the industrialized world. But its initial goal — to get every public school student in America up to speed in math and reading by 2014 — is nowhere in sight.

John Jesse, director of assessment and accountability for Utah's office of education, said that the aim for universal proficiency by 2014 was "an unrealistic goal."

Minorities, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, English language learners and students with disabilities were far behind their counterparts in 2001. NCLB was intended to narrow the gap. But 10 years later, the chasm still yawns. According to Jesse, "Statewide, I don't know that you could statistically say" any difference has been made to Utah's achievement gap.

Alternatives to NCLB are being loudly proclaimed from the U.S. Department of Education to the floor of the Senate. The administration is now granting waivers to states who come up with a new plan to improve on the old policy. Utah plans to submit an application in February.

But some educators think these changes won't go far enough — that NCLB's core philosophy lives on. If the old ideas are dictating the so-called reforms, they wonder, when — and how — will the education system's problems be fixed?

Ten years of tests

President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law on January 8, 2002 with broad support. The new policy was supposed to bring accountability to schools through testing: in order to receive funding from the federal government — money used to build new gyms and hire more science teachers — every public school was required to test students in grades 3 through 8 annually on language arts and math.

In 2007, and then again in 2008, Hillsdale Elementary's test scores failed to meet the standards. The school was officially labeled "in need of improvement." According to principal Yvonne Pearson, who arrived just in time for the bad news in 2007, the effect of the school improvement plan mandated by No Child Left Behind was "revolutionizing," helping the school get up to speed. But the Utah version of NCLB has not made much of a difference for most schools, especially when it comes to the achievement gap.

As of 2008, students labeled "economically disadvantaged" were passing their math CRTs 58 percent of the time, 20 percentage points behind their "non-economically disadvantaged" peers. Hispanic and Native American students were almost 30 percentage points behind white students in language arts.

"I don't think we have solutions in place yet," said Jesse.

But he said the gloomy numbers are now at the forefront of the national education discussion, and the change is thanks to No Child Left Behind, which "shone a light on those subgroups."

Others are convinced that the legislation has only moved education backwards.

"It totally failed," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the advocacy organization FairTest in Boston on both of its goals. In fact, "the U.S. was making greater progress toward both goals before No Child Left Behind," he said.

Problems left behind

Critics of NCLB today do not come from one political party. They are not only teachers or only administrators. And even those who applaud the focus on "subgroups" recognize the policy's flaws.

"The most negative thing," said Jesse, "is that (standards for meeting NCLB) was calculated strictly based on proficiency." Students who progressed were not included in an evaluation. Getting better was not enough.

"(NCLB) was based on a false diagnosis of what was wrong with American schools," said Schaeffer, "that kids and teachers simply weren't trying hard enough. If you simply raised the bar and yelled at them to jump higher," improvement would surely follow, and it did not.

By the end of last year, 48 percent of public schools in America were designated "failing," according to a report from the Center on Education Policy, raising another controversy. Many school administrators feel these kind of public declarations foster a sense of comparison and punishment.

"Comparing schools — I don't know that I think that is fair. That does need to change," said Pearson. "You cannot compare some of these Title I schools with the schools on the East side (of the Salt Lake valley). Some of our kids are just plain hungry."

Critics argue that the crushing irony of NCLB is that the education of the hungry American kids — the students already at a disadvantage — has been hurt by the very policy that supposedly championed their cause.

Teaching to the test

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing released a report on January 3rd concluding that the negative effects of NCLB "fell most heavily on classrooms serving low-income and minority children."

The phenomenon is known colloquially as "teaching to the test": schools which depend heavily on federal funding, usually because they have fewer resources at the local level, will narrow the curriculum to teach only the tested subjects, reading and math. Fill in the bubbles, get the money.

There is plenty of evidence at Hillsdale to show the primacy of testing in public schools. "I went to every class and told (the students) why the test was important," said Pearson. She's provided each child with paper on which they can graph their own test results. She continues to emphasize "test-taking vocabulary" and said that "we've talked a lot about the process of elimination," to improve the chances of correct answers.

But she mentioned that the school does have two art specialists and successful before- and after-school programs. "I am 100 percent behind reading and math, but you've got to have some of those other things," she said.

Reform or repeat?

Policymakers of all political stripes are calling for an education overhaul. The current Department of Education's reform project began in 2009 with Race to the Top, which offered money to states that submitted the best proposal to improve their own systems. And in September the administration announced that states with a plan could also apply for NCLB waivers.

But for some critics of NCLB, the curious thing about the current reform movement is its startling resemblance to the last 10 years; the emphasis on standardized testing is as important as ever. Educators are split over where testing belongs in the push to overhaul America's system.

Utah is in the process of developing a new testing system that will emphasize a school's progress rather than meeting one flat goal every year. Testing, according to Jesse, "has its place. You need accurate assessment. But increased testing alone does not increase student performance or teacher performance."

"I think it's important to know where kids are, how they're doing, and be accountable," Pearson said. She emphasized that going over test scores was a collaborative process between Hillsdale's administrators and its teachers that "brought everybody on the same page."

Education reform today is especially focused on the link between test scores and teachers. A study released this month from three Ivy League economists followed one million students in a single school district over the course of 20 years. It showed that teachers who raised their students' standardized test scores over the course of even one school year had far-reaching effects: their students were more likely to go to college, less likely to get pregnant as a teenager, and had higher incomes later in life.

For many reformers, the study showed that the mark of a good or a bad teacher can be — at least in part — determined by a test.

But experts caution that the study's results need to be evaluated before schools put the ideas into action.

"To take this one study as evidence that we can accurately identify effective and ineffective teachers on an individual level is erroneous and dangerous," Ellie Fulbeck, a postdoctoral fellow studying education at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the Deseret News in an email.

The students in the study were taking tests before NCLB — so the stakes were much lower, said Fulbeck.

"If tests were to matter (as much as they do now) … you'd see all kinds of manipulation of test scores," said Schaeffer.

"We need to be careful not to let enthusiasm for teacher evaluation reform get ahead of the research," Fulbeck concluded.

Moving forward

It is clear from the research that good and bad teachers matter to education. Pearson said that her teachers and the training they received during her school improvement campaign were an enormous component in keeping Hillsdale moving forward.

"They just want to work, work, work, work," she said. "(My teachers) just work all the time."

As legislators and policymakers continue to look for ways to improve and alter what No Child Left Behind laid out 10 years ago, teaching and testing are sure to be at the center of the conversation. But what needs changing may be more than test scores.

For Schaeffer, the appropriate direction to move in involves better training and recruitment for aspiring teachers, "and more support for the ones we have now."

The achievement gap, the low proficiency and the failing schools make for a bleak picture of the American system. But Schaeffer is confident that it can change, "if we're serious about improving education."

EMAIL: lmarostica@desnews.com