School is back in session. With the new academic year, school districts are once again struggling to implement the No Child Left Behind Act–a massive federal intrusion that impedes learning, encourages
dropouts, narrows the curriculum, increases anxiety, fosters academic dishonesty, and does nothing to improve schools.
In 2002, President Bush sat at a wooden desk in the gymnasium of Ohio’s Hamilton High School and signed this massive federal law. The Act dramatically expands the federal government’s role in education. It touts the goals of closing the student achievement gap, making public schools “accountable,” establishing standards of excellence for every child, and placing a qualified teacher in every classroom.
The law requires student testing–and plenty of it. There are annual tests in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in grades 10-12, beginning in 2005-2006. There are tests in science in elementary school, middle school, and high school, beginning in 2007-2008. School and district progress reports must be met each year, and by 2014, every student in America must have achieved state-defined proficiency. Students in “failing” schools will be eligible to transfer to “high-performing” schools. “Failing” schools may be closed.
What’s wrong with testing, testing, testing? Plenty. First, annual high-stakes testing impedes learning. It produces rote memorization and a “drill and grill” curriculum. Between pre-testing and the actual testing, students may be involved in 3 to 4 weeks of test-related activities distinct from normal instruction. This distraction may account for as much as 10 percent of the year’s instructional time. Instead of imparting knowledge, public school teachers are spending increasing amounts of time teaching to the test.
Also, high-stakes testing encourages school dropouts. In Massachusetts in 2003, almost twenty percent of high school seniors did not pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment to receive their high school diplomas–including 44 percent of the state’s black seniors and half its Hispanic seniors. Students who feel they cannot pass the test–despite repeated attempts–see no reason to stay in school.
The No Child Left Behind Act also restricts the curriculum. It produces a narrow focus on math and reading test scores. Schools desperate to improve their test scores are eliminating courses in art, music, speech, debate, home economics, industrial arts, history, social studies, and physical education–as well as recess.
In addition, the Act narrows the range of performance-based accountability. Who says that a standardized test is the only way to measure student achievement? What about portfolios, exhibitions, essays, student-initiated projects, and teacher evaluations?
Constant testing also increases pressure on young children. The Act calls for math and reading tests in third grade–when most students are eight years old. Putting pressure on young children runs counter to everything we know about the psychology of children and the psychology of learning. Annual high-stakes testing threatens to turn schools into sweatshops.
The pressure to improve student test scores has also led to cheating. The Dallas Morning News last year found strong evidence that teachers were helping students cheat at 400 schools throughout Texas, including Houston. Faced with the need to improve test scores or lose their jobs, some teachers simply resort to giving out the answers.
Also, annual testing does nothing to improve schools and student performance. It focuses on punishment, negative labels, and threats. It places too little emphasis on the social causes of poor school performance. It does nothing to improve the curriculum, reduce class size, decrease school size, increase parental involvement, create after-school programs, diminish school violence, lessen absenteeism, or increase funding.
Fortunately, there is an increasing state rebellion against No Child Left Behind. Connecticut has sued the US Department of Education over funding support, and the Utah state legislature has ordered state officials to ignore provisions of federal law that conflict with Utah’s educational goals.
No Child Left Behind is a disastrous policy that deserves to be repealed.
Ted Rueter is an assistant professor of political science at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana