Testing and standards-based education reform

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A Nation at Risk was the beginning of an evolution in achievement testing and standards-based education reform. On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) which reauthorized ESEA in dramatic ways. NCLB is a federal law that mandates a number of programs aimed at improving U.S. education in elementary, middle and high schools by increasing accountability standards. The approach is based on outcome-based theories education that high expectations goal-setting will result in greater educational achievement for most students." The No Child Left Behind Act, the landmark legislation, continues to make an important impact on education today. However, there is a push to revise many elements of this act. In all certainty, the No Child Left Behind Act may be causing students more harm than good. Has NCLB been successful or has it failed?

The phrase, "left behind" evokes disturbing images, perhaps of an orphaned child, of a soldier wounded and trapped behind enemy lines, or of ragged survivors in a post-apocalyptic future. Actually, in the context of Public Law 107-110, to be left behind is to be on the low end of an "achievement gap." The achievement gap in question is not the one that derives from

hereditary differences in cognitive abilities, between students with more or less aptitude for academics. Rather, the gap in question usually arises out of inequality in family income.

Education has been near the top of the national domestic agenda since the 1980s. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a landmark federal law established in 1965.  ESEA was originally established to ensure educational equity for all students.  The law is routinely "reauthorized" by Congress and has not been reauthorized since 2002 - the longest-ever period between rewrites of this law. In that time, the federal government has passed innumerable diminutive pieces of legislation, twice reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, dabbled with national standards and tests, and supported a mixed bag of innovations such as charter schools and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Despite substantial effort, much creativity, plenty of politics, and many billions of dollars, however, none of this activity has amounted to much, with Washington continuing to foot only about 7 percent of the nation's K-12 education bill and most of the real action taking place in states and districts. (Hess, 2004).  NCLB was proposed by the Bush Administration and enacted by the 107th Congress, in 2001, by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote and signed into law in 2002.  NCLB requires each state to set academic standards; test all students periodically in science as well as in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school ; and to set annual accountability targets for every school to meet.  NCLB sets a national goal that by 2014 all students would be "proficient" in reading and math, and requires states and school districts to intervene in schools that miss their annual targets for multiple years.  However, 37% of America's schools today are not meeting their annual targets mandated by NCLB.  The U.S. Department of Education estimates that number could more than double, to over 80% of schools in 2011, highlighting the need to fix the law.

In 2002 Congress passed the administration's controversial No Child Left Behind Act, which required regular tests of public school students. Under its terms, every state, to receive federal aid, must put into place a set of standards together with a detailed testing plan designed to make sure the standards are being met. Students at schools that fail to measure up may leave for other schools in the same district, and, if a school persistently fails to make adequate progress toward full proficiency, it becomes subject to corrective action.(Peterson, 2003) The NCLB Act significantly increases the choices available to the parents of students attending Title I schools that fail to meet State standards, including immediate relief-beginning with the 2002-03 school year-for students in schools that were previously identified for improvement or corrective action under the 1994 ESEA reauthorization. LEAs must give students attending schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring the opportunity to attend a better public school, which may include a public charter school, within the school district. The district must provide transportation to the new school, and must use at least 5 percent of its Title I funds for this purpose, if needed. At NCLB's heart is the requirement that states annually test all public school students in grades 3- 8 in reading and math and that every state measure whether its public schools are making "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward universal pupil proficiency in core subjects. In order to make AYP, schools must have a sufficient percentage of students performing acceptably and making the requisite gains from year to year. (Hess, 2004) Crucially, schools must show gains not only for their overall student body but also for pupil subgroups delineated by grade level, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and special needs. If schools do not make the progress mandated by the state, various sanctions and interventions are supposed to follow, all of them intended to rectify the problem and set the school on a path toward rising achievement. (Hess, 2004)

No Child Left Behind stated President Bush's unequivocal commitment to ensuring that every child can read by the end of third grade. To accomplish this goal, the new Reading First initiative would significantly increase the Federal investment in scientifically based reading instruction programs in the early grades. One major benefit of this approach would be reduced identification of children for special education services due to a lack of appropriate reading instruction in their early years. NCLB is unique among the government's efforts in that it focuses not only on raising standards overall but also on increasing the achievement of students in a variety of demographic subgroups, including those from racial and ethnic minorities, disabled students, English language learners, and students faced with economic disadvantages. NCLB also is much stronger and more far-reaching than previous federal efforts to raise education standards. (Gamoran, 2007) There are many reasons to expect that NCLB's approach to increasing standards and holding schools accountable for student performance will boost the chances for poor children to succeed in school. First, by requiring schools to report test results separately for students in different demographic subgroups, NCLB shines a spotlight on social inequalities in school performance that sometimes have been obscured in the past, perhaps increasing the political will to address this profound problem. Second, in principle, the transfers and supplemental services offered to students in schools that are not making AYP should help disadvantaged students to obtain better opportunities. Third, NCLB requires districts to place a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom. Teaching out of field or with provisional certification is more common in schools with large proportions of low-income students than elsewhere, so that requirement also may improve opportunities for the disadvantaged. Finally, NCLB requires districts participating in the Reading First program to choose curricula and teaching methods for which there is scientific evidence of success. If those methods are more effective than untested alternatives, the move to evidence-based teaching of reading may be especially important for poor children, who are overrepresented among struggling readers. (Gamoran, 2007) Yet there are many challenges to reducing inequality under NCLB. More diverse schools may be more likely to be labeled as not making adequate yearly progress simply because their larger number of population subgroups.(Gamoran, 2007)

Because of its focus on regular testing, NCLB has proven to be highly controversial.  The debate surrounding NCLB has recently become especially heated since the Act is under review and in the process of reauthorization.  While NCLB originally received bipartisan support, both political parties are now arguing over the Act is being implemented effectively. Both critics and advocates of the Act cite extensive evidentiary support of their own position on the controversy. Not officially reauthorized, the No Child Left Behind Act was initially legislated for 5 years, and has been since temporarily extended. While most Senate Republicans heartily despise NCLB, Senate Democrats were divided on reauthorization. Senate reauthorization ,in May 2008, was put on the backburner while legislators pondered hundreds of reform ideas. President Obama said he will seek to reauthorize NCLB in early 2010 and again on March 14, 2011, but modified to be similar to his $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative, which requires five major education reforms for K-12 public education, and pushes states to compete for education funding, rather than automatically receiving it based on a formula."

"Opponents of NCLB, which includes all major teachers' unions, allege that the act hasn't been effective in improving education in public education, especially high schools, as evidenced by mixed results in standardized tests since NCLB's 2002 inception. Opponents also claim that standardized testing, which is the heart of NCLB accountability, is deeply flawed and biased for many reasons, and that stricter teacher qualifications have exacerbated the nationwide teacher shortage, not provided a stronger teaching force. Some critics believe that the federal government has no constitutional authority in the education arena, and that federal involvement erodes state and local control over education of their children."

"NCLB, supporters agree with the mandate for accountability to educational standards, and believe that emphasis on test results will improve the quality of public education for all students. Proponents of NCLB initiatives believe that will further democratize U.S. education, by setting standards and providing resources to schools, regardless of wealth, ethnicity, disabilities or language spoken".

I believe that NCLB is no doubt flawed by its assumption that schools alone can eliminate achievement gaps in the face of powerful social inequalities in the wider society. Yet while that assumption is surely unrealistic, the question of what schools can do is unresolved. How much gap-closing can be expected from standards-based reform? What lessons can be learned from past reform efforts that will lead to greater progress; if not fully accomplish NCLB's ambitious goals? On one level, NCLB creates incentives for improving student performance and reducing gaps in achievement, and on that level, the policy appears to be succeeding. To an extent never before attained in the United States, educators, politicians, and the general public have been alerted to the problems of inequality, including inequality between students in poverty and their more advantaged counterparts. Incentives, however, are unlikely to suffice. Instead, specific strategies are needed to improve students' learning opportunities in schools, such as strategies to improve teacher and instructional quality and to promote evidence-based practices. Moreover, to make a difference in achievement gaps, those strategies need to target the most disadvantaged students.

NCLB does little to encourage schools and states to reflect on the reasons for changes in test

scores, and there is little in the work of the Commission to suggest a change for the better.

Educators often trumpet any gain in test scores, however miniscule, as evidence of significant

improvement. There is political value in reporting good news, and such reports may help to

rally the faithful. However, genuine progress in teaching and learning is likely better served by a genuine understanding of the situation.

After establishing the integrity of the results, further studies should examine the significance

of changes in the scores. Do the changes meet criteria for statistical significance? From a

statistical perspective, are the changes small, medium, or large? Score reports often disregard

the sizes of groups of students. A small change may be statistically significant for a large

group, but meaningless for a smaller one. Once the statistical meaning of the change is clear,

the educational meaning needs investigation. A change of several points may be statistically

significant, but might be negligible in the classroom. A steady upward trend may be trivial if it takes decades to reach a goal.