NCLB Crashed and Burned -- When Will We Ever Learn?

If our policymakers haven't learned NCLB's lessons, the good news is that tens of thousands of parents, teachers, students and community activists have. They're rising up around the nation to say enough is enough.
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It's 2014, the year all U.S. public schools were going to reach 100 percent student proficiency, thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

No, you didn't miss the fanfare. One hundred percent proficiency didn't happen. Not even close. In fact, our classrooms are making even less progress toward improving overall educational performance and narrowing racial test score gaps than before NCLB became law.

The problem is policy makers are still following NCLB's test-and-punish path. The names of the tests may have changed, but the strategy remains the same. As the late, great Pete Seeger sang, "When will we ever learn?"

It's not that the law's proponents haven't acknowledged -- repeatedly -- the law's vast unpopularity and negative consequences, including the way it made schools all about testing. Back in 2007, Congressman George Miller, an NCLB co-author, said, "No Child Left Behind may be the most negative brand in America." This week, the retiring congressman said the results from the federally mandated tests were intended to measure school progress and drive improvements. Instead, he said, "the mission became about the test."

He added, "I don't believe you can drive a car blindfolded. So all we asked was, 'How are the kids doing in your test?' And it turned out to be a nuclear explosion, because it wasn't in the interest of the school district to tell the community how each and every kid was doing on their test."

Miller is right that you can't drive a car blindfolded. But you can't steer safely if federal law forces you to stare at the speedometer instead of looking through the windshield and at the mirrors and other gauges to choose the best route forward. Yet, that's exactly what NCLB's fixation on standardized test scores requires schools to do.

The best teachers know they get the most useful information by considering a variety of measures of student learning. They know it's essential to use the windshield, that is, look at the work students do in class every day. By watching them tackle math problems and reading their essays and research papers, teachers can see how students approach things, why they succeed or get tripped up. Then they can use that information right away. They can give feedback, shift their practices appropriately and steer students in a more successful direction.

Test scores add some useful information, like the speedometer, which needs to be checked periodically to avoid accidents or being ticketed for speeding. But neither is the most important or most helpful measure. A driver who looks at the speedometer and nothing else is going to crash or mow down innocent pedestrians in no time.

Unfortunately, those driving the federal school policy bus clearly haven't learned any real lessons from NCLB's failures. To the contrary, they're staying the course of test-driven education reform. And they're still trying to sell Miller's false suggestion that the problem isn't too much testing, it's simply that communities can't handle the truth being delivered by the test scores.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top program and NLCB waivers are increasing, not cutting back, the amount of testing. To be eligible for Race to the Top's grant competition, states agreed to adopt "new and improved" Common Core standards and tests. When scores on the new tests plummeted in New York and Kentucky, Duncan famously claimed the problem was not the tests, but parents reacting negatively to bad news about their kids. Duncan said he found it "fascinating" that opposition has come from "white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden -- [learned] their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."

If our policymakers haven't learned NCLB's lessons, the good news is that tens of thousands of parents, teachers, students and community activists have. They're rising up around the nation to say enough is enough, opting out and boycotting tests, demonstrating, petitioning and educating others about the need to change course. Pete Seeger, who said participation is what will save the human race, would be proud.

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