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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 01/ 6/2011

NCLB's 9th anniversary: 'Will there be anything we will need to remember after the test?'

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Dennis Van Roekel, a 23-year math teacher at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix who is now president of the National Education Association, the country's largest education union.

By Dennis Van Roekel
Nine years ago this week President George Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act that:

A. Stunted the creativity and critical thinking skills of American public school children
B. Prevented teachers from tapping into the full potential of their students
C. Fostered a school environment that values test-taking skills above all others
D. Stole the joy from teaching and learning
E. All of the above

Much has been said and written about NCLB since then, but nothing sums up its impact on public education as well as a story from a middle school in California.

Early in the school year, as a teacher was explaining what material would be covered in class, a student raised his hand and asked, “Will there be anything we will need to remember after the test?”

The intent behind NCLB was to close achievement gaps between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers.The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that those gaps have not been narrowed.

So while NCLB was useful in providing data about different demographic groups, it didn’t achieve its goal of closing the achievement gaps.

But in its emphasis on standardized multiple choice tests, NCLB has distorted our children’s experience in school. Students as young as 6 or 7 years old are now subjected to weeks of preparation for high stakes tests. Because math, reading and to a lesser extent science are the only subjects regularly tested, students are drilled in those topics.

Meanwhile, subjects such as history, civics, music and art - which help develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills - are squeezed out of the school day.

When we teach only what will appear on multiple choice tests – and when we ask teachers to read from a prepared script and spend no more and no less time on prescribed subject matter – we cheat our children. Students’ questions and approaches to learning are as unique as each of them.

Children are individuals, and each class a teacher encounters is different. As teachers, we instill the importance of creativity, critical thinking and not cheating in our students. But each day for the last nine years we have cheated countless children of a quality education.

The current standardized multiple choice tests are a crude instrument for assessing student achievement, and it is good that two groups comprising 44 states are currently working to develop new assessments that will give a more complete and nuanced picture of learning and critical thinking. But even the best assessments won’t lead to real improvement unless they are used for the right purposes.

Tests shouldn’t be used to punish schools, as is the case under NCLB, or to pigeonhole students or their teachers. Instead we should use assessments to help teachers improve their practice, help students evaluate their own strengths and needs,and focus help on the students and subjects that need attention.

Tests have always been part of school, but No Child Left Behind got the role of testing wrong.

As Congress begins to debate the next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which in its current version is NCLB, we must make sure they get it right.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 6, 2011; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  congress and nclb, esea, esea reauthorization, national education association, nclb, nclb reauthorization, no child left behind, standardized testing, teachers unions  
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Next: What 2010 education research really shows about reform


Great article!

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 6, 2011 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure the idea is wrong. Possibly backwards. Tests should be built from objectives that are provided to teachers. If the objectives are incorrect, then obviously we are teaching or trying to teach wrong material.

Assessment for the sake of improvement, as Van Roekel writes, makes perfect sense. The idea we use it as we do is nonproductive.

On another note, the current administration decided to leave the process in place. While it was enacted by Bush, it could have been adjusted or nixed. Neither happened.

As for the child's question, if Art Linkletter taught us nothing, it was "Kids say the darnedest things."

Posted by: jbeeler | January 6, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Exactly. Tests should be a means to an end, but they have become the be-all and end-all in too many schools today.

Posted by: crw3 | January 6, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Exactly. Tests should be a means to an end, but they have become the be-all and end-all in too many schools today.

Posted by: crw3 | January 6, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Let's be fair. We used to ask our teachers, "What practical use is geometry?" or "What difference does it make which general commanded at Gettysburg?" Basically, we were asking, "Do we need to remember this after the class is over?"

The difference is that in those days teachers at least tried to convince us that what we were learning had some practical use. (The best they ever came up with for geometry was that it taught us "to think logically." I always wondered why they didn't just teach logic.) Now, of course, the teachers have given up trying to relate any work to the real world--students and teachers alike admit that the only purpose of anything in the schools is to get a high score on the next test.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 6, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Beware there will come a time when these children become adults, and mark my words they will question why their elders could not see beyond the numbers. They will tear NCLB's data walls down, and build schools where their children are more than test scores.
I am walking to DC,

Posted by: readdoctor | January 6, 2011 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Everyone, if you haven't, go read Testing Miss Marlarkey by Judy Finchler.
Here's a review:
From School Library Journal
Grade 2-5-This picture book about the current standardized-testing culture will either touch a funny bone or a nerve. A school community is obsessed with students' preparation and performance on the Instructional Performance Through Understanding test (IPTU). The title gives away the actual joke: it is the teachers whose futures are on the line. As Miss Malarkey prepares her class, she becomes increasingly frazzled as test time approaches. Although she tries to reassure students that "THE TEST" is not important, the atmosphere tells a different story. Children play Multiplication Mambo at recess, eat brain food in the cafeteria, and learn to meditate in gym. While they seem immune to the adult panic, the tension spreads to their parents who abandon bedtime stories for textbook drills and attend a PTA meeting with Dr. Scoreswell, "the Svengali of tests." It is disappointing that the final illustration shows that all the hysteria has had positive results, as the faculty celebrates the school's status as #1 IPTU County Champions. O'Malley's colorful cartoons extend the slapstick, over-the-top humor. Readers will get the joke if they have experienced our society's testing mania. The appreciation by school professionals may depend on their perception of whether the laughs are at the expense of the testing process, society, or the teachers themselves.
Kate McClelland, Perrot Memorial Library, Old Greenwich, CT

Posted by: edlharris | January 7, 2011 3:06 AM | Report abuse

In one breath the NEA president derides the use of state NCLB tests as harmful and a waste of time and money. In the next breath he uses NAEP results (similar in format and presentation to state NCLB tests) to substantiate his argument that all this testing is doing nothing to eliminate the achievement gap? YOU CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS, big Denny.

Not to mention, when examining state NCLB tests, why doesn't he attack the real culprits, state education officials that gamed the whole process with foggy standards, ridiculously easy assessments, and outrageously low thresholds to define "proficiency?" Talk about a crime.

He's correct when he says the tests should be used primarily to point out student/teacher weaknesses, which then should be remediated. The tests should NOT be punitive in nature.

Bi-partisan support for the original legislation suggests the law should be amended, not ended. Eliminate annual yearly progress and replace it with growth models. Reduce/minimize the amount of testing. Use the new Common Core Standards across the country coupled with soon-to-be developed corresponding common assessments with one universal definition of proficiency and we could have the beginnings of a genuine, advantageous piece of legislation - FINALLY.

We certainly cannot return to the time when the public had to rely on teacher grades to figure out whether our kids were learning anything or not. Ubiquitous practices of grade inflation, social promotions, and graduating everyone proved that to be an unprecedented lark foisted upon parents and taxpayers and they can never be trusted again.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 7, 2011 8:12 AM | Report abuse


You claim that "In one breath the NEA president derides the use of state NCLB tests as harmful and a waste of time and money. In the next breath he uses NAEP results (similar in format and presentation to state NCLB tests) to substantiate his argument that all this testing is doing nothing to eliminate the achievement gap? YOU CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS, big Denny."

Van Roekel's two ideas are NOT mutually exclusive. Please read more critically next time. You can simply rearrange and simplify the argument this way if it fits your sequential and dwarfish thinking: Because NCLB tests are "doing nothing to eliminate the achievement gap," the tests are "harmful and a waste of time and money." It reads like a fairly standard enthymeme that does not self contradict itself. And if go back and look at his argument again, you'll notice that you switched the two premises around with your faulty analysis.

Posted by: DHume1 | January 7, 2011 10:06 AM | Report abuse


With that line of convoluted reasoning you must be a member of the NEA's Representative Assembly. That's the crowd that lays out policy for the NEA and they think, the country and the world.

As a life long member of the NEA, I saw through their charade years ago where the folks calling the shots constantly vacillated back and forth between being "profession" educators and civil service members of the Teamsters. Depending on the situation, they thought they could survive under this split personality.

My analysis, Dhume, is on target, regardless of how you attempt to spin it. You must be a big wig in the NEA because their MO is they think they can tell people what or how to think. You've simply had too many cups of the NEA kool-aid to be able to see your way through their propaganda.

Finally, their time has come and their days are numbered. State and federal legislatures across the country along with the business community have had it with them. And guess what, no one is going to miss their narcissistic and bullying ways, NO ONE.

Randi Weingarten and the AFT have been willing to comprise and make concession for the benefit of students. If the NEA doesn't fall into line, they will continue to be demonized as the myopics they are.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 7, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse


No, your analysis is NOT on target. Look at it again. Prove to me that I am wrong and I will fully apologize to you. Truly I will. Try using only Van Roekel's piece above, and prove to me that the two items are mutually exclusive. They are not. It is clear to me that you made some errors, assumptions, and leaps with your reasoning concerning this article.

I never said Van Roekel or his establishment was a pillar of integrity in our community. I am simply saying that your glossed-over analysis of what he wrote is WRONG. Nothing is being spun or slanted. You just based your arguments on an unsound foundation.

I haven't ever belong to the NEA before and I haven't had Kool-aid since I was eight or nine, but I do belong to the ALA and I do read a lot. I do know when someone misrepresents an argument. And I know that you did here.

Posted by: DHume1 | January 7, 2011 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Here is a comment I have heard in increasing frequency over the past years: "I'm not doing this but don't worry, I can pass the test." The kids have gotten the idea that the test is the be-all, end-all of school and many of the tests are a minimal expectancy.

@phoss You show a mis-understanding of the use of the two different tests. NCLB tests EVERY child and EVERY child is deemed fit or unfit. NAEP and PISA tests are only administered to a representative sample of students. The results are used to measure the general trends and are not punitive in nature like the NCLB tests. NAEP is used to study and adjust the picture of education. Understanding these tests requires an understanding of statistics and measurements that is often misunderstood by the general public.
Sadly, the "dip-stick" of both NAEP and PISA show that the last nine years have done a great deal of damage to the knowledge and skill levels of our students. We have been going backwards while other nations have invested in their children for the future.
We are being left behind and this will ultimately affect us all.

Posted by: mtedrow | January 7, 2011 6:15 PM | Report abuse


"Similar in format and presentation" in no way suggests for what the tests are "used." I helped develop the MCAS tests in Massachusetts and am also fully aware of the intricacies of the NAEPs, often referred to as the nation's report card. I do not need a lecture, thank you, on either of the two.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 8, 2011 7:36 AM | Report abuse

I say we repeal this disastrous law which has been so destructive to public education, which already was fragile. Private schools are not subjected to it, so why should public schools be?

The same creativity that promotes teaching in the private school system should be allowed to thrive in the nation's public schools.

Posted by: vscribe | January 8, 2011 6:40 PM | Report abuse

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