By Kevin Hart
It’s punitive. It over-emphasizes standardized testing. It narrows curriculum and takes a one-size-fits-all approach to education.
The problems with federal education policy under No Child Left Behind, the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, are numerous and frustrating for America’s educators and students.
With the Obama administration’s recent announcement that it will soon establish guidelines for states seeking relief from NCLB’s onerous requirements, there have been renewed discussions on what it will take to fix NCLB permanently and comprehensively.
America’s educators, who are intimately familiar with the practical problems NCLB presents at the classroom level, are eager to be heard in those conversations.
In a recent discussion on the National Education Association’s Speak Up For Education & Kids Facebook page, educators shared their thoughts on what changes they would make to NCLB to ensure it helps students succeed and reflects the realities of today’s classrooms.
Several educators voiced frustration with NCLB’s over-reliance on standardized testing, which they say is killing creativity, narrowing curriculum, and de-professionalizing teaching. Educators said they would like to see an assessment strategy that didn’t punish certain student groups – like special education students and English language learners – and was focused on individual student growth.
“We need to remember to educate the whole child and respect the knowledge of the professional educator,” said Washington educator Connie McCormick Compton, adding that public education policy had developed a “fixation” on testing.
Educators said this fixation on standardized testing under NCLB unfairly targets certain student populations, such as special education students and English language learners.
Compton pointed out the federal education policy is inconsistent when it comes to serving special education students. For example, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act mandates special services for students who are below standards in one or more areas, but NCLB requires those same students to take standardized tests to demonstrate that they are meeting standards.
Special education students’ Individualized Education Programs should set the expectations for their growth, Compton said.
Lyn Huston, an elementary teacher from rural Nevada, said students with limited English language proficiency are similarly disserved under NCLB, and are often forced to take standardized tests they may not even understand. It’s a problem many educators would like to see addressed in an NCLB rewrite.
“Studies consistently show it takes 5-7 years or longer for anyone to become fluent in a second language, and yet they are expected to take tests in English,” Huston said. “Tell me, how valid and reliable is a test that a student can’t read or understand?”
Several educators said they would like to see federal policy that is based on individual student development, and not just arbitrary, school-wide growth goals. Right now, NCLB essentially compares the standardized test performance of a group of students from one year to the standardized test performance of a different group of students from the previous year.
A system that focused on individual students and their growth would be more fair to students and more informative for educators. Laurie Kelly, a Title I teacher from Maryland, said she would like to see an assessment system focused on “progress for individual students without across-the-board percentage growth requirements for all classes, schools and school systems.”
“This would be more realistic and fair, since economically disadvantaged and limited-English students switch schools frequently,” she said. “Their records can follow them.”
Educators say they want federal education policies that help all students flourish – and they want legislators to remember that implementing those policies takes resources.
Bobee-Kay Clark, a teacher from Washoe County, NV, said that means making sure schools are “fully funded, staffed, stocked, and maintained.” Instead of cutting staff positions, schools should be making sure all students have access to qualified teachers, education support professionals, nurses, librarians and counselors.
“We need to surround our children with professionals,” she said.