While at an elementary school doing research for a book about the impact of standards and testing on American education, I spent a lot of time watching a girl I called Whitney. Among other disabilities, Whitney had mild mental retardation. Although she was in fourth grade, she could sound out words only on the level of a first-grader, and her ability to comprehend what she read and heard seemed no more advanced.
I once saw a teacher spend 15 minutes, as the rest of the class worked independently, trying to explain to Whitney that when you sell something you get money for it, a concept crucial to understanding the story at hand. Teaching homonyms was exhausting, if not futile, because at least one word of every pair (dew, grate) was something Whitney had never heard before and could not grasp once she did. When a special education teacher told Whitney that synonyms have the same meaning, she asked, inexplicably, "Like a science experiment? Like a dinosaur?"
As Congress considers revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act, I hope lawmakers think about children such as Whitney. While many elements of the landmark education law are up in the air, one provision almost certain to be included is the "growth model": assessing the "adequate yearly progress" of schools not by calculating how many fourth-graders passed a test compared with the previous year but by measuring the progress made by each child. This is a welcome change and if executed properly may yield far more useful information.
But a large problem remains: Under the versions of the law under discussion, Whitney will still be given the fifth-grade test in fifth grade, the sixth-grade test in sixth grade and so on. She will probably fail these tests no surprise to her teachers and whatever progress she makes, unless it is so miraculous as to wipe away her deficiencies altogether, will go uncredited. Worse, her time and her teachers' time will be badly misused.
Under the law, a small minority of disabled students are allowed to take a test of more basic skills. Whitney's problems aren't severe enough for her to qualify. Like other special education students, she is entitled to "accommodations" during testing. For many students, these services extra time, a quiet room away from the distraction of classmates, a teacher who reads the exam aloud level the playing field enough for them to succeed. For others, accommodations can't come close to making the difference between passing and failing.
It's not just that Whitney's progress can't be properly measured by a test that's way above her head. It's that by taking to heart the law's mandate of every student in a grade working toward the same target, administrators are making bad instructional decisions that permeate classrooms nationwide. Teachers follow pacing guides that tell them what to teach each day, no matter where their students are. Students take benchmark exams each quarter and unit tests each week that correspond to how much time has passed, not what those particular children need to learn. Watching a new immigrant I called Mateo struggle with a quiz that asked whether colonization meant an armed invasion, peaceful revolution, settling of new land or control of goods English terms he had never heard before simply because that was the quiz fifth-graders were taking that day in preparation for their state test, I felt like I was witness to nothing more than a waste of precious time.
That students such as Whitney and Mateo are getting more individual attention is easily the best outcome of the law so far; that this attention is directed toward the wrong goals is negligence. Educators talk about the importance of teaching children as individuals, and they are right. In the classroom, though, they're not following through. You can blame No Child Left Behind, the climate it's induced or the questionable choices people make in its name. Whichever way, as long as students are judged only on grade-level tests, no matter their needs, and as long as the education they get the rest of the year hews to that goal, they will lose out.Politicians say that anything less than holding fourth-graders accountable for fourth-grade work amounts to leaving children behind, and challenging that notion has become taboo. "For the vast majority of students, grade-level learning is not too much to ask," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said last month. The only time I saw Whitney make progress was the hour she spent each day with a specialist who guided her in blending letters to make sounds hardly a skill in the fourth-grade curriculum. Is it too much to ask that children such as Whitney be taught what they need to learn in order to make their own adequate yearly progress?
Linda Perlstein, who covered education for The Washington Post from 1998 to 2004, is the author of "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade."