"No Child Left Behind up for renewal

Many educators, educational groups and civil rights organizations have drawn a bull’s-eye on President Bush’s major education reform initiative, No Child Left Behind, when it comes up for renewal next year. While some have heralded the measure’s success at improving the test scores of the nation’s public school students, No Child Left Behind has been the focus of much criticism since it was passed in 2001 and signed into law in January 2002, with a five-year renewal clause.

Nearly everyone agrees with two of NCLB’s main points: All students must have equal educational opportunities, including minorities, low-income students and special needs kids; and all classrooms must have highly qualified teachers.

A third component, however, deals with accountability, and what should happen to the schools and educators of students who aren’t achieving up to established standards.

“The more people know No Child Left Behind, the less they like it,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the Boston-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes standardized testing.

“In the sense of it helping to highlight the need for improvement in the sub-groups, such as low-income children and those in special education, [NCLB] has been very helpful,” said Mary Louise Bewley, a spokeswoman for Indianapolis Public Schools. “I don‘t know that the pressure of testing has been helpful,” she added. “It causes a lot of stress before the test and a lot of anxiety after the test. That is disheartening.”

Anxiety or not, test scores in the state and in IPS have improved in each of the last five years. The states and school districts receiving federal funds develop and implement curriculum standards, and plans for assessing performance and for holding schools accountable. The Hoosier state uses its annual Indiana State Testing for Educational Progress-Plus exam, commonly known as ISTEP, to comply with federal assessment requirements.

In the 2001-’02 school year, only 55.7 percent of all Indiana school students passed both the language arts and math portions of ISTEP. That improved to 64.1 percent in the 2005-’06 school year, the last year for which statistics are currently available.

While test scores in IPS remain below both state and federal levels, they have dramatically improved in the last five years, going from only 26.9 percent passing both portions of ISTEP in 2001-’02, to 38.8 percent passing in 2005-’06.

“In most states, the scores have gone up,” Schaeffer acknowledges. “But any causal relationship between NCLB and testing scores ... is due to false conclusions.” Critics believe that is because with so much on the line, schools and many teachers have begun to focus almost exclusively on material that will show up on standardized tests.

Schaeffer said with a new Democratic Congress, federal lawmakers could be looking to make changes in the law. But they won’t come easily or early. He said lawmakers would do well to consider two separate reports out this fall from Indiana University.

A report three weeks ago by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy and the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community concluded that most states are not making Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, for special education students.

The report’s author, Sandi Cole, director of the Indiana Institute’s Center on Education and Lifelong Learning, said the study uncovered “a number of unintended consequences that have had a negative impact on students with disabilities.”

“The best and most positive effect that NCLB has had on special education is that students with disabilities now count as part of the assessment system,” Cole said in the report. “But we need a system that values learning and growth over time, in addition to helping students reach high standards.”

Another report, released in August, concluded that nearly 60 percent of respondents thought that No Child Left Behind had no effect on their school or had a negative effect. The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on the public’s attitudes on public schools showed widespread support for the law’s goals and also for public education itself. But 81 percent felt that NCLB’s focus on math and language arts did not give a fair picture of a school, and another 78 percent felt that the focus on just two subjects meant less emphasis on other subjects.

“This is significant and disturbing given that the nation’s schools are spending virtually all their available money and resources in an effort to meet the demands of this law,” Lowell Rose, who co-authored the poll with Alec Gallup, said in a prepared statement.

The poll “should serve as a wake-up call to our nation’s policymakers as they begin the process of reauthorizing NCLB for 2007,” William Bushaw, executive director of an association of educational professionals, said in a release. “The public rejects the punitive approach found in NCLB, favors a broad curriculum, prefers more appropriate measures of school performance than a single high-stakes test and supports efforts targeted at helping our most vulnerable students.”



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