Teaching to Reality 

With elections less than two weeks away, candidates for offices at all  levels are being asked their positions on education policies.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January 2002, has been one of the most controversial and contentious approaches to education in America in recent decades. For more than a year, NCLB has been awaiting congressional action to renew its policies. Democrats unsuccessfully sought changes to NCLB this past year that included adding tests in history and civics; allowing LEP (limited English proficiency) students to take tests in their native languages for five years; and looking beyond test scores to determine AYP (adequate yearly progress).

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proposes to strengthen NCLB by measuring graduation rates uniformly among states and linking rates to AYP; improving parental notification of public school choice and private tutoring options when schools fail AYP; and allowing states to include measures of individual student growth when determining AYP.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain calls NCLB “a good beginning.” He advocates for more choice and competition in education, including school voucher programs. McCain would allow certified companies to market directly to families in schools that failed AYP. He would fund incentive bonuses for high performing teachers to locate in the most challenging educational settings, math and science teachers and teachers who demonstrate student improvement.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama wants to reform NCLB by expanding funding, changing the current assessment system and placing more support in schools that need improvement. His education initiative calls for recruiting math and science degree graduates to teaching; starting drop-out prevention programs in middle schools; doubling federal funding to after-school programs; and increasing Early Head Start and Head Start funding.

The positions of candidates for superintendent of public instruction in Indiana are also including NCLB in their campaigns for office.

Republican Dr. Tony Bennett applauds NCLB accountability and supports Indiana’s new Acuity testing. “You hear a number of people say we’re doing too much testing. The fact is that it is the best means of making sure we’re hitting the standards.” He encourages voters to talk to their congressman about NCLB, particularly to question the fairness of how special education and LEP students are tested. He is in favor of adding growth models as an AYP measure.

Democrat Dr. Richard Wood believes accountability in education is crucial, but says that “NCLB is going to collapse under its own weight.” If elected, he will support Indiana’s Acuity testing plan. Wood would like to see more summer and after-school remediation, noting that current remediation and testing funding is “way out of kilter.” He wants to fund full-day kindergarten for families who choose it and bring back a cap on class sizes starting in the primary grades.

The intersection of education and politics with NCLB has teachers, administrators, parents and elected officials debating what is the best way to raise the achievement of American students, and often disagreeing.

Test anxiety

Here in America, testing has become the legislated answer to the head-thumping question: How will we make sure that all children learn? In 2001, the federal law known as No Child Left Behind mandated that all states track — and prove — student achievement in annual standardized tests. Seven years later, local school calendars are crowded with quarterly, even monthly tests. Critics warn with barnyard philosophy that you don’t make the pig fatter by weighing it. Proponents say that they’ve found a way to catch failure, before it begins.

“We are not collecting data for the purpose of doing well on ISTEP,” clarifies Glenda Ritz, media specialist at Washington Township’s Crooked Creek Elementary. “We’re collecting data to make sure that all students are at grade level or above.” In her township, kindergarten through first grade classes take a short reading and math test called AIMSWEB four times a year. Every four and a half weeks, teachers in grades two through eight give small, districtwide pre- and post-unit tests. It’s Ritz’s job to analyze her school’s data and identify at-risk students. Then, the principal meets with teachers by grade teams to discuss each student: Should Bobby see the Title I reading specialist? Does he need a reading buddy? What about a mentor to help with emotional problems?

With Crooked Creek’s four-star rating — and third grade ISTEP math and language arts pass rates above 80 and 90 percent — Ritz believes data-driven instruction is doing the job.

Friendly warnings

Seven years ago, Warren Township’s overall ISTEP pass rate had dipped to 55.7 percent. Then, schools began a new instructional cycle revolving around districtwide tests every three weeks. The tests tell teachers which math and language arts standards have been passed by which students. Working in grade groups, as in Washington Township, Warren teachers decide which children spend their daily “success period” in an enrichment program and which head to remediation groups and tutoring. Last year, the district’s overall ISTEP had risen to 66.1 percent.

Warren schools devote more class time to NCLB-graded subjects, math and language arts, with additional time added for remediation. Warren also put their schools on a unified academic calendar. If a student should move from one neighborhood to another, his new school will be studying the same Indiana State Standards at the same time as his old one. To ensure quality and synchronized instruction based on the standards, the district has an open-door policy. Tony Burchett, assistant to the superintendent of secondary instruction, gives new hires this friendly warning: “Don’t be surprised to see your superintendent in the classroom.”

“It’s a lot more difficult for teachers to think out of the box,” says Raymond Park Middle School special education teacher Melissa Gogel, who sees both the necessity for the new model and what’s missing from it. She stresses that the change is not Warren’s fault but part of an NCLB-era trend. New teachers aren’t learning to integrate subjects in a way that engages students. Gogel says, “Passing the ISTEP is the most important thing.”

Gogel also sees new teachers overwhelmed by discipline problems, because they aren’t putting their relationship with the student first. Getting to know about students, their home lives, Gogel says, is how teachers unhook them from iPods and get them to behave and learn. She believes that her middle school’s ISTEP jump last year — 77 percent of students passed overall — owes a lot to their school’s use of positive behavioral support, a discipline style that relies more on teaching good behavior than “catching” bad behavior.

36 ways to fail

Perry Township embraced the testing-data analysis cycle several years ago, because Director of Instruction Dr. Debra Barnes says, “We don’t wait for children to fail before providing intervention.” Grades two through eight take computerized math and language arts tests every month. These “predictors” test students on what they have been taught and what they haven’t been taught yet, to predict ISTEP success.

One sixth-grade teacher explained to me how they run with the data at Perry’s Edison Elementary School, which has made the NCLB grade called AYP for four of the last five years. A partnership between the district and a charter school company, Edison gives laptops to students and reserves two periods per day for specials like physical education and art. Specials teachers are told which standards kids need help with and incorporate them into their class time. For instance, during physical education class, students might calculate the area of their gym. General teachers team up by grades to determine shared instructional strategies. If tests tell them one standard isn’t coming across to students, they agree on a shared plan. When they return to class, each will hit the same standard in the same way on the same day.

At Perry’s Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, whose overall ISTEP pass rate rose again to 81 percent last year, Principal Steve Craig makes sure struggling and at-risk students get remediation from his half-time reading and math coaches, community volunteers and peer tutors. Kids are pulled out of non-graded classes like gym and art, but Craig draws the line at lunch and recess, saying, “That would be punishment.”

Like many administrators, Craig says that there are 36 ways for a school to fail to make AYP. Even if the right number of total students has passed ISTEP, a school can fail to make AYP if any one subgroup population — such as minorities, special education students, impoverished children and students who are learning English as a second language — fails to make AYP. Craig’s school has only the last two subgroups. For schools with more subgroups, Craig likens making AYP to “bop the gopher.” Just as you nail one target, another one pops up.

NCLB critics call it a punitive measure, which uses tests to judge schools more than to help students. Though Craig sees how test use has changed, he doesn’t think his district punishes anyone. “Nobody beats anybody up with data,” he says of the new culture. “We talk openly about scores. It’s less ‘I close my door and do what I want.’” His motto: “I can’t be as smart as all of us.”


Data-driven instruction is helping raise ISTEP scores in some township districts, where middle-class children learn alongside the poorer students NCLB intends to help. So what might it mean to Indianapolis Public Schools, where almost 80 percent of students live in poverty? IPS test scores have risen regularly since NCLB to 50.9 percent overall passing last year — but the district is below AYP goals and preparing for restructuring.

“Sometimes I feel like testing spreads the gap,” says third-grade teacher Kathy Wilson, who teaches at IPS School 70, an arts magnet elementary school in which 67 percent of the students passed ISTEP last year. Two years ago, IPS began to test students every four and a half weeks. Even as the school devoted more time to the arts, Wilson found that in the rush to cover all topics on the monthly “benchmark,” her lesson plan became less creative.

“For some lessons, I rarely cracked the book,” says the 29-year-teaching veteran, waving guiltily toward little used science projects at the back of the class. Last year, her curriculum relied heavily on benchmark sample questions, obtained from the Indiana Department of Education’s Web site. Teaching 27 students, including three hearing impaired students, three special education students and many below grade level, Wilson fit in remediation with the help of a special education instructor.

Sara Girardot began her teaching career four years ago at an IPS middle school under NCLB sanctions. Because the school had failed for four years to make AYP, the school faced a possible takeover. “They had different companies come in and tell us what to teach,” Girardot recalls. “They gave us every single lesson.” As a first-year teacher, she didn’t mind. Now, she says, she would hate it.

When Girardot moved to School 70, she developed more hands-on lesson plans for her fifth- and sixth-graders. To keep pace with the benchmarks, however, she found herself lecturing more. And because neither science nor social studies is “graded” on the school’s NCLB annual report card, she focused mostly on math and language arts. Hustling from one benchmark to the next, she doubted that students reached mastery of topics before the test. And after, she found little time for remediation. Of the high stakes testing, she concludes, “I think we’re meeting the state’s need, not the kids’.”

Girardot’s Principal David Newman says that IPS isn’t teaching to the test but “teaching to reality.” Thumbing through pages of student records and spreadsheets full of test scores, Newman explains that teachers have to adapt to frequent standardized testing and the data analysis that goes with it. “You can’t do it in the cloister of the classroom,” Newman submits.

IPS has switched from the benchmark program to another test this year. The district volunteered to roll out Acuity, sponsored by the Indiana Department of Education. The state has seven Acuity tests for grades three through eight, but IPS will use only three of the predictor tests, the IPS assessment office says, “so staff can focus on other instructional strategies.”

Doing it their way

IUPUI educational psychology professor Joshua Smith has been watching the shifts in teaching strategies in area school districts under NCLB. “Lack of teacher freedom scares me the most,” he says, believing that teachers need a “diverse tool box” to reach the wide range of student learning styles. He observes that as strict curriculum pacing increases, so does direct instruction — and student behavioral problems. He instructs IUPUI’s future teachers to mix it up: Let children play with a topic and help them make a connection between it and their world.

“Connection to school is a huge predictor in what makes kids stay in school,” explains Smith, who also directs IUPUI’s Center for Urban and Multicultural Education. In a CUME study of middle school students, researchers found that students of color held higher abstract but lower concrete identification with academics than white students. That is, black students believe — as their white peers do — that school is important and they should go to college. However, their reality tells them it won’t happen. For some, one more failed test may confirm that “Teachers don’t get me” or “I’m not the college type.”

Even as struggling minority students seek that connection between their aspirations and reality, they find less of it these days, Smith suggests. In suburbs, where 90 percent or more of students pass ISTEP, educational ingenuity is more likely to be fostered. The urban poor, however, are more likely to get ISTEP as the “ceiling” and more content-based rather than inquiry-based curriculum.

Amanda Ashe was among several teachers interviewed who talked about students affected by homelessness or violence

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