PEN Report Sharply Criticizes NCLB

K-12 Testing

The second report on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) from the Public Education Network (PEN) sharply criticizes the law's overemphasis on testing and punishment, lack of support for real school improvement, and the unwillingness of the government to enforce the parent and community involvement requirements of the law. The report draws on testimony from public hearings PEN held around the nation over the past fall and winter.


Its recommendations parallel in many important ways the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB (see story, this issue).


Here are direct excerpts from the report:


Summary of Testimony and Recommendations from the Public


The public supports accountability, but believes the current NCLB accountability system is too narrow. It rejects the idea that a single test can create an accurate portrayal of how well a school is performing and believes that such a determination is often at odds with evaluations based on state assessments and inconsistent with how members of the public personally evaluate their schools. They want other, more formative evaluation dimensions included in the determination of school performance. [Note: formative assessments are intended to guide teaching rather than simply summarize what a student has learned.]


Rather than viewing a school in need of improvement as an opportunity to rally community support and elicit strategies for ways students in that school can be better served, such labeling initiates blame-games and fingerpointing at whichever group caused the school to "fail."


The strong emphasis on a single high-stakes test puts enormous pressure on teachers and principals that is passed on to students, causing them deep anxiety. At a minimum, this is counterproductive. At its most extreme, it is severely debilitating and is even causing students to drop out of school.


The strong focus on testing has significantly narrowed the curriculum, at the expense of course work and outside activities that many parents believe are necessary to prepare their children for the real world after high school.


[T]he premature inclusion of English language learners and some special education students in regular testing programs is unfair to them and to the schools they attend.


Many hearing participants were adamant that increasing expectations without increasing resources is a recipe for failure.


Families don't want to transfer their kids to other schools; they want their local schools to get the resources they need to be effective.


Teachers, principals, and district personnel do not have the capacity, nor are they being given the training, to engage parents or community members. Parents are not being informed about their rights, roles, and responsibilities.


Community members also remain uninformed about NCLB provisions. Though the law states that community representatives should serve on committees or be consulted, community members are typically not aware of these opportunities.


Students across the country see a significant disconnect between teachers who are deemed "highly qualified" according to state licensing requirements, and teachers who are able to engage students in the learning process and reach students with a variety of learning styles and needs in a culturally sensitive manner. Students, parents, and community members are concerned not only about teacher "qualifications"; they are concerned about the "qualities" that teachers bring into the classroom, and about the significant need for highly qualified teachers in low-performing schools.


Test-Based Accountability: Failure of a Promising Reform


At every hearing, youth and adult witnesses alike revealed their frustration, sometimes to the point of anguish, about the current impact of the accountability policies.


It is significant that Texas, the state with the longest experience in implementing the kind of test-based accountability embodied in NCLB, was the site of the hearing that produced the most anguished testimony about its effects.


The pressure to avoid sanctions causes teachers and administrators to narrow the curriculum to subjects that are tested, devote an inordinate amount of time to test preparation, and use only instructional strategies that are thought to boost test scores.


Students in schools labeled "needing improvement" feel the most pressure and experience the worst narrow, drill-based curriculum.


Eric Mar, past president of the San Francisco school board, told the hearing panel in his city that, even though the purpose of NCLB and state mandates is to raise achievement, "the law is doing just the opposite for the vast majority of low-income children of color..."


Students and parents were aware of the inequities in resources that affect student test scores. Those from the inner city told of broken computers, unheated and overcrowded classrooms, shredded and outdated textbooks, and no science laboratories.


Labeling schools that do not meet AYP goals demoralizes students and teachers, causes the schools to lose community support, and does not guarantee interventions based on best-practices research.


Students offered a number of alternatives to current assessment practices: greater reliance on portfolios or other ways of demonstrating student work, differentiated assessments for students with disabilities or limited-English proficiency, use of grade-point averages, and end-of-course exams rather than high school exit exams.


The Public Recommends

The public says that schools need full community support and collaboration in order for students to be successful. Schools cannot do their job alone.


When a school is identified as needing improvement, there should be resources directed to that school and a mandated set of strategies and interventions, not just punitive sanctions, to improve the school and to address issues such as the lack of information, the lack of capacity, the lack of parent and community involvement, the need for better academic and nonacademic supports, the inadequacies of the current SES system [Supplement Education Services required under NCLB], and the virtual abandonment of designated schools.


The public clearly wants to reduce the emphasis on a single test as the sole determining factor of adequate yearly progress (AYP). Suggestions for alternatives include establishing a value-added assessment system that works in tandem with the current NCLB reporting system and gives credit for significant progress, and allowing districts to include a local academic progress measure, in addition to the NCLB required assessment systems, in determining progress toward AYP.


- The report is at Reports on the state hearings will be posted to in the near future.