OPINION: Why “No Child Left Behind” Fails Under Obama, Too

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The recent education reforms to No Child Left Behind proposed by the Obama Administration sadly perpetuate a flawed testing policy that will continue to leave our children behind.

I have no problem with tests. Testing, when employed effectively, can be an appropriate way of gauging knowledge, reinforcing lessons and diagnosing learning deficiencies.

Unfortunately, these admirable goals have been sacrificed over the past decade for a more superficial –and political– over-reliance on test scores where children are reduced to numbers and teachers sacrifice more substantial content for drilling test-taking skills.

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To clarify, there are numerous standardized tests out there, like the SAT, ACT, and Iowa Basic Skills test, to name a few. I am not referring to those, but rather the numerous end-of-grade/end-of-course competency tests students take largely as a result of the ‘standards-based reform’ promoted by No Child Left Behind.

Once you place severe consequences on these exams –like keeping children from moving to the next grade or graduating based on a single test—this process is called ‘high-stakes testing.’

And that’s where serious problems lie.

No Child Left Behind –and any later version of it that fails to fundamentally alter this high-stakes approach—has an unhealthy and counterproductive dependence on test scores. And while I am all for holding schools, teachers, parents, and students accountable, basing an elementary or secondary student’s future on one test is not sound educational policy.

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Case in point: like last summer, this year, a substantial number of students in states across the country will be placed in summer school for the sole reason they didn’t pass one specific test. Such policy, over the past few years, has prompted groups like the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education all to conclude it is damaging to children to base retention or graduation decisions on an individual test.

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In addition, there’s been numerous  problems with state testing systems including the tests scores of entire school districts being tossed out because either too many students passed or failed; tests not being aligned to what teachers are teaching in class; inaccurate test questions; scoring mistakes; and parents being denied the right to review their child’s test.

Not to mention the insane amount of profits testing companies receive from all the tests students are now forced to take.

And these policies disproportionately affect our children of color, who are more likely to be poor and in schools where teachers do nothing more than “teach to the test,” a problem highlighted by President Obama himself during his presidential campaign.

Wealthier public schools spend less time worrying about testing and more time on quality education and critical thinking since many advantaged students already test well; But poor children in under-funded schools get little more than test coaching, given the primary focus is on test results.

The consequences for schools that don’t test well are pretty severe in states across the country. They include a loss of funding, takeover by the state, a loss of teacher bonuses, possible teacher dismissals, and public labeling as a failed school.

Education should not be just about testing, but about turning on a light in a child’s mind to develop a lifelong love of thinking and learning.

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The late Paul Wellstone, Senator from Minnesota, had this to say about No Child Left Behind: “Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker, and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high-stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity.”

Our administration and our nation currently have an opportunity to more positively affect the lives and educational outcomes of millions of American schoolchildren.  The stakes, indeed, are high; too high for us to continue a hollow promise that leaves our children behind.

Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focused on democracy. She is an author, a Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and former Chief Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Stephanie reaches 8 to 10 million listeners each week as political commentator for the popular radio venue, The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Check her out at stephanierobinsonspeaks.com. Visit her online at www.StephanieRobinsonSpeaks.com

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