Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: Many Children Left Behind

Many Children Left Behind by Deborah Meier and George Wood (Editors).

Reviewed by Susie Berry

Many Children Left Behind (edited by Deborah Meier and George Wood, 2004) is a compilation of essays written by educators and supported by detailed research. There has been considerable bashing of No Child Left Behind (a law mandated by the federal government) and these authors agree that much is wrong but this book gives suggestions on how we can attempt to “right that wrong.” The book is loaded with information so this review will only focus on testing – how it has changed curriculum and how it is affecting students, teachers, and schools.

One of the biggest problems of NCLB is how it measures schools. As part of the NCLB law, states are required to test students each year and show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The issue is how the states do this testing. The law mandates that 100% of students must score at the “proficient” level by the year 2014. How reasonable is that expectation and is a 100% proficiency level even possible with the kinds of tests being given? ISTEP+ (Indiana’s yearly test) is a criterion-referenced test currently based on Indiana’s State Standards. Students must score above an arbitrarily selected “cut score” in order to pass. NCLB requires that a school be labeled “failing” if a certain number of students do not reach the “cut scores”. One of the problems is that the test themselves as well as the “cut scores” are often changed from year to year. It’s almost as if the state is setting up students to fail.

Then to complicate this complicated issue, there is a question of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students and special needs students (what the law calls “students with disabilities”). Schools with a high number of these students are being punished and labeled “failing” – no matter what gains these students are making yearly. Large urban schools are most vulnerable.

Another issue that has surfaced with high-stakes testing is the increase in the high-school drop-out rate. Interestingly, students who have not done well on these tests eventually drop out of school. The consensus among the authors who contributed to this book is that the extensive standardized testing hurts more than the drop-out rate. Teaching to the test (so that students can pass, so that schools are not labeled “failing,” so that good teachers can keep their jobs) severely narrows the curriculum. There is less discussion, less critical thinking, and fewer school experiences. It’s not fun to teach and it is certainly not fun for the students. More than one student has come to school asking, “What kind of test do we have today?”

George Wood, one of the seven contributors to Many Children Left Behind, is a high-school principal married to a kindergarten teacher. He says that changing this law “will require a strategy that shows the progress of the standards and testing agenda and at the same time offers ways to focus on helping schools, especially those that serve our most vulnerable children.” He has these suggestions for a national campaign:
  • Testing Moratorium – Call for a national or state-by-state moratorium on high-stakes testing. Tests need to have predictive value and should be linked to predicting success after school.
  • Assessment of School Health – A measure of school health would show if children are engaged using their minds, and are “even happy”. It would also use samples of student work and academic achievement.
  • Targeted Intervention – “We should begin by demanding that funding for our schools be equalized. Additional funds should flow to schools that serve our most needy students.
Wood contends that many supporters of NCLB have (had) good intentions. The one-size fits all, blame-and-shame agenda does nothing to help our schools and our children.

Monty Neill was another contributing author and he has these specific suggestions for helping our schools. He bases them all on “authentic accountability:”
  • Shared Vision and Goals – Community goals should prioritize what is important in both academics and school life.
  • Adequate Resources Used Well – Hire good teachers; spend money on professional development; and provide books, technology, and supplies in a comfortable, clean environment. Children who need more should be provided with more.
  • Participation and Democracy – Teachers, parents, and administrators must play key roles in planning goals and expectations and appropriate ways to evaluate them.
  • Prioritizing Goals – Standardized testing might be the easiest way to measure but improving the climate and culture in schools is more important.
  • Multiple Forms of Evidence – Standardized tests do identify some educational problems but “accountability requires the use of both qualitative and quantitative evidence.” And the focus of all this assessment should be to improve instruction.
  • Inclusion – Accountability and assessment should include all children but in-school and out-of-school factors should also be considered.
  • Improvement – Schools and districts must implement procedures to “guide decision making” to improve the quality of schools and learning.
  • Equity – All the measures established must focus on overcoming “the consequences of poverty and racism.”
  • Balance – We should expect “equitable uses” of resources and a sound basis for educational reform.
  • Intervention – “Firing teachers or changing governance are not paths to meaningful improvement. Intervention should focus on factors that can produce powerful improvement, such as rich professional development, stronger parent involvement, and high-quality classroom assessment.”
All this takes time but some states have begun implementing alternative forms of assessment and are minimizing the role of state standardized testing. Indiana and other states should follow and establish reasonable criteria that is good for students and truly will improve the quality of our schools.

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