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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 02/ 9/2011

Poll on NCLB: Americans want overhaul (but does Congress?)

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Monty Neill, interim executive director at The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit organization that works to end the misuses of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair and valid.

By Monty Neill
A new USA Today/Gallup poll shows that a strong majority of Americans support a major overhaul of No Child Left Behind or total elimination of the law.

Among all respondents with opinions about NCLB, only about a quarter said, "Keep basically as is." Democrats, Republicans and Independents share these opinions in very similar ratios. (NCLB is the current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA.)

More precisely: 16% want to “eliminate law”; 41% said, “keep with major revisions”; 21% replied, “keep as basically is”; and 21% had no opinion or did not know enough to say.

What is it the people want to change? From other surveys and qualitative evidence from gatherings around the country, such as those Public Education Network held a few years ago, people understand that standardized testing is out of control, eating up too much time and narrowing the curriculum. They grasp that the sanctions that punish troubled schools are not helpful and that many schools lack the resources to do a good job.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan pays lip service to the public desire to overhaul the law. He recently said that NCLB has been too narrowly focused on standardized testing, yet keeps pushing for states to use student test scores as a “significant factor” in evaluating, tenuring, firing and paying teachers. This would only increase the stranglehold these tests have on schools even though overwhelming research shows this is a flawed, inaccurate, and counterproductive process.

Duncan says new tests being developed by two multi-state consortia will be better assessments than those that have been in use. But proposals from the consortia suggest otherwise, showing that the new tests will remain predominantly multiple-choice with a mostly vague nod to “performance tasks.”

Under Duncan’s proposals, we would see a major increase in the amount of centrally controlled testing that will make NCLB seem like the “good old days” of standardized testing only once a year.

It is unclear whether Congress will do better. Two years ago, now House Education Committee chair Rep. John Kline (R-NM) protested the federal testing requirements. Will he lead his committee to honor that protest? Will it dawn on members from both parties in both houses that the intense focus on testing has failed to improve our nation’s schools?

Duncan would reduce punishment for most schools, leaving them off the hook (and perhaps enabling the suburbs to separate even more from the consequences befalling low-income urban and rural areas). But schools facing the worst consequences from poverty, segregation and inequality, who as a result score lowest on tests, will continue to suffer misguided sanctions.

Race to the Top presented four largely flawed “turnaround” models for districts to rely on when dealing with the lowest-performing schools. When challenged, the department could not even muster a fig leaf’s worth of evidence to back up its models.

In this area, Congress is unhappy, though there remains in some quarters a willingness to go along in part with Duncan’s four models – provided there are additional models, hopefully ones backed by evidence. Details need to be worked out, but there is a chance that sanctions for schools will largely fall out of a new law, while a focus on rational assistance to schools increases (if testing does not overwhelm what otherwise could be reasonable help).

Using test scores to judge teachers and principals has become the new currency in reform circles, with sadly misplaced faith in the badly named "value-added" models that experts say are not valid assessment tools. Will Republican legislators decide that imposing such requirements on the states is another example of federal over-reaching? Will Democrats decide that supporting tools that will be used to smash unions and that cannot and will not help improve education really is a step they should not take?

These are the questions that Congress has to answer well if it is to meet the call of the people to overhaul ESEA/NCLB. building local and state pressure for positive change just might help ensure the overhaul the public wants and deserves. Passively watching won’t change anything and makes it likely we will see less funding, continued wrong-headed federal intrusion, more testing and even higher stakes.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 9, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Monty Neill, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  arne duncan, esea, low-performing schools, nclb, nclb overhaul, nclb poll, nclb sanctions, no child left behind, no child left behind reauthorization, poll on no child left behind, school reform  
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I don't want to see the test removed. I want to see the intent of the test altered. Testing should be a measure of learning, but not necessarily failure.

Using the test to alter instruction, emphasis, and objectives should be the intent. Children even today have no idea what is expected of them. They do know testing can cause failure. If students knew their expectations, had adequate instruction matching the intent of the test, and had the support of the test instead of adults squabbling the stress would be less and the scores would be more.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 9, 2011 7:42 AM | Report abuse

How about we use the tests to identify student weaknesses (so they can hopefully be re-mediated) as well as to improve instruction among teachers. If we eliminated and/or minimized some of the high stakes, the tests could morph from punitive to performance improvers.

And BTW, how about we cut back on the frequency of the tests; instead of every year between grades 3-8, we tested every other year, even every third year, especially for students who performed well in third grade. In most cases those kids don't need to be tested so frequently. If they've been identified as on track in the early grades, many/most aren't going to deteriorate over time.

Posted by: phoss1 | February 9, 2011 9:43 AM | Report abuse

phoss1 wrote: And BTW, how about we cut back on the frequency of the tests; instead of every year between grades 3-8, we tested every other year, even every third year, especially for students who performed well in third grade.
I think most teachers would agree with the above statement. Sadly, one of the multi state groups is considering testing 4 times a year instead of once. Knowing how disruptive these tests are to our school, I basically see very little teaching occurring under such a scenario.

Posted by: musiclady | February 9, 2011 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Large-scale longitudinal studies funded by US DOE's Office of Special Education Programs documented that at both the elementary and secondary level, there was an "almost zero" correlation between disabled kids' objectively-assessed reading and math scores and their teachers' subjectively-given grades. The secondary school study also showed that by high school, most disabled kids were doing reading and math at 3+ years below grade level. The authors opined that they doubted most of these kids - in regular education classes - could actually read their textbooks.

In the face of this research, which has never been challenged by other studies' findings, and given that disabled kids are at least 13% of all students, we desperately need objective measures to tell parents and kids whether they're making progress or not.

I would propose abolishing NCLB's tests, which will undoubtedly wind up being dumbed-down under the Common Core standards as they were previously, and replace them with the real, nationally-validated reading and math diagnostic assessments. The legitimacy of these tests has not been challenged and at least we'd know that kids from all groups could read their textbooks, even if they didn't learn much from them. A guarantee of a basic reading and math level isn't bad.

Posted by: deealpert | February 9, 2011 10:39 AM | Report abuse

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