News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Where do all the children go?

As soon as No Child Left Behind was implemented, it became apparent that the law needed to be revised to ALOKLO--A Lot of Kids Left Out. One of the first places where it became noticed that kids were being left out was the Houston School District. During its first year of testing, it reported that 5,500 students had left the system. It failed to note that half of them were drop outs.

Most teachers supported NCLB when it was initiated. They assumed it would provide the needed resources to improve education. Instead of getting the instructional support that would help them keep up with the evolving situations that educators face, NCLB was a scheme borrowed from business to "motivate" employees and school districts by putting them in competition with each other with punishments for those who ended up in the bottom ranks. Almost immediately the instances of teachers and entire systems cheating came to light. Teachers further recognized that the scheme required them to teach to tests in a one-approach-fits-all format. One Houston school told teachers to circumvent the tests and coached them in how to do it.

Most educators realized that the NCLB was shifting teaching effort to "teaching to the test." Instruction became a matter of preparing students for the tests rather than engaging them in approaches to learning that recognize the individual mentalities and the need for various approaches. Test score averages can be kept high if students who do not perform well are eliminated. And that means a system can keep its scores at an acceptable level by dropping children who get the lower test scores.

At the same time, some states are finding that the idea of having all students reach acceptable scores is being frustrated. In South Dakota, the 11th grade reading scores have been declining. That is true in other states, also, such as neighboring Minnesota. Teachers suspect the problem may well be in teaching to the test. Reading comprehension in the upper grades improves when students have to write in response to what they have been reading. Multiple choice reading tests, such as those used in NCLB, do not measure the finer points of comprehension and accurate interpretation; they measure only basic and obvious points of declarative statements. It is a akin to a music student who has mastered the scales but cannot play a song.

The drop out problem in public education has intensified with NCLB. Poorly motivated students find teaching to the test a deadly bore. And educators find that the assessment test scores go up when they are not dragged down by poorly motivated students. And so the educational underclass is growing in population as more students drop out.

Engaging drop outs is not easy nor understood. Much of the criticism of our public schools, their methods, and their curricula stem from the measures taken to address the drop out problem which became an urgent matter in the 1960s. Social passing and grade inflation stem from attempts to engage student interest, and learning was not a primary interest. The charges that students can't read, spell, write, or do basic arithmetic arise from well-intentioned programs to keep kids in school. In other words, many of the failures noted in education grew out of programs that made it more attractive for students to stay in school, but those programs did not address how to deal with their lack of interest, their lack of motivation, and the multitude of distractions that shape their attitudes toward school and learning.

The studies and programs directed at improving education are striking for the absence of one group of people in their formulation: the teachers. No place is that more evident than in No Child Left Behind.

Testing has two functions in education:

  1. to measure the progress and achievement of students, and
  2. to provide diagnostic information about their strengths and weaknesses.
As implemented the NCLB tests are barrier tests, tests designed only to gauge whether students have met goals set for them. For students who do not meet the goals, there is no information coming back to them and their teachers as to why. And for students who do meet the goals, there is no information as to what is working with them and why.

The biggest error in these tests is that they are administered under the assumption that in assessing student achievement, they are also measuring the competence of the teachers. No doubt, student success has much to do with the ability and skill of teachers, but the lack of success is more often because of factors far outside the control of the teacher and the school.

To demonstrate a high level of success through student testing, the most expeditious route is for the poor performers to drop out.

Most school boards today do not consider their function as a conduit and mediator between the professional staffs and the citizens whose taxes pay for the schools and whose children populate them. They think more that they are like a corporate board of directors whose job it is to tell the professional staffs what their jobs are and how to do them.

As No Child Left Behind comes up for re-authorization, it is time that real educators be involved in planning how to improve education and defining what it will take to achieve improvement.

And that means keeping kids in school and actually educating them, not dumping children who drag down the test scores by the wayside.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States