It seems that just about everyone is ready to leave behind No Child Left Behind, the 10-year-old federal law that attempts to make public schools accountable for measurable student achievement. President Barack Obama's administration is trying to grant waivers from NCLB's strictures and Republican presidential candidates are using it as a blunt instrument in debates.
In today's Deseret News, reporter Laura Marostica explores some of the frustrations NCLB has caused for students, parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers. The signature education reform of President George W. Bush, NCLB was intended to help every child in American public schools to become proficient in math and reading by 2014 through a mix of assessment and accountability.
What most critics emphasize about NCLB is how the focus on tying the results of student assessment to school funding and governance has skewed education to "teach to the test" and created counterproductive incentives as schools comply with the law's demands.
Writing jointly in The New York Times last year, Frederick Hess, a right-of-center scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Linda Darling-Hammond, a left-of-center professor at Stanford University, expressed that the congressional requirements of NCLB "turn into gobbledygook as they travel from the Education Department to state education agencies and then to local school districts. Educators end up caught in the morass of prescriptions and prohibitions, bled of the initiative and energy that characterize effective schools."
Unfortunately, as the debate about the future of the federal government's role in education unfolds, the gobbledygook of NCLB's failings seems to be gumming up understanding and acceptance of the vital principles of assessment and accountability.
So, for example, for all of the law's rhetorical emphasis on accountability, NCLB, in deference to the states' traditional role in education, gives states complete discretion to set their own educational standards. Some states, however, have abused that discretion. Alabama, for example, reported 87 percent of fourth-graders passed its reading assessment. However, only 34 percent of Alabama fourth graders demonstrated reading proficiency on the federal National Assessment of Education Process.
Similarly, NCLB appeared to talk tough about consequences for failing schools, threatening state takeover or conversion to charter status. But failing schools could also use "any other" restructuring. According to Kevin Carey, the policy director at Education Sector, "over three-fourths of failing schools (have) chosen 'other,' which often means something like 'hire a consultant.'"
And, while NCLB larded up the system with increased reporting requirements, it did nothing to provide resources or flexibility to address what researchers increasingly understand as the most important thing that schools themselves can do to improve learning outcomes: Improve teacher quality.
For all its faults, NCLB has given everyone more information about student performance. And when that information is transparent, it can teach families, educators and policymakers about specific strengths and weaknesses. Rigorous assessment is helping to identify where there are gaps in performance and to facilitate research into what impedes and what promotes student achievement.
Prior to linking federal funds to state systems of accountability, 14 percent of fourth-graders showed proficiency in math. Today, 45 percent demonstrate proficiency.
Indeed, one of NCLB's requirements, to provide fine-grained statistical information about performance by major demographic groups, is providing a frank and helpful guidance about inequities and achievement gaps. This information is already helping innovative educators to target their teaching more effectively and forward-thinking lawmakers to target their funding more equitably.
In the name of assessment and accountability, NCLB has created a punitive and onerous system where most players end up losing. Parents, educators and policymakers should use the critical reassessment of NCLB as an opportunity, not to jettison accountability, but instead to reclaim meaningful assessment and accountability as allies in the effort to create world-class educational opportunities for our children.