By Dennis Van Roekel
first appeared in Valerie Strauss’ The Answer Sheet
Nine years ago this week President George Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act that:
a. Stunted the creativity and critical thinking skills of American public school children
b. Prevented teachers from tapping into the full potential of their students
c. Fostered a school environment that values test-taking skills above all others
d. Stole the joy from teaching and learning
e. All of the above
Much has been said and written about NCLB since then, but nothing sums up its impact on public education as well as a story from a middle school in California.
Early in the school year, as a teacher was explaining what material would be covered in class, a student raised his hand and asked, “Will there be anything we will need to remember after the test?”
The intent behind NCLB was to close achievement gaps between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers.The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that those gaps have not been narrowed.
So while NCLB was useful in providing data about different demographic groups, it didn’t achieve its goal of closing the achievement gaps.
But in its emphasis on standardized multiple choice tests, NCLB has distorted our children’s experience in school. Students as young as 6 or 7 years old are now subjected to weeks of preparation for high stakes tests. Because math, reading and to a lesser extent science are the only subjects regularly tested, students are drilled in those topics.
Meanwhile, subjects such as history, civics, music and art – which help develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills – are squeezed out of the school day.
When we teach only what will appear on multiple choice tests – and when we ask teachers to read from a prepared script and spend no more and no less time on prescribed subject matter – we cheat our children. Students’ questions and approaches to learning are as unique as each of them.
Children are individuals, and each class a teacher encounters is different. As teachers, we instill the importance of creativity, critical thinking and not cheating in our students. But each day for the last nine years we have cheated countless children of a quality education.
The current standardized multiple choice tests are a crude instrument for assessing student achievement, and it is good that two groups comprising 44 states are currently working to develop new assessments that will give a more complete and nuanced picture of learning and critical thinking. But even the best assessments won’t lead to real improvement unless they are used for the right purposes.
Tests shouldn’t be used to punish schools, as is the case under NCLB, or to pigeonhole students or their teachers. Instead we should use assessments to help teachers improve their practice, help students evaluate their own strengths and needs,and focus help on the students and subjects that need attention.
Tests have always been part of school, but No Child Left Behind got the role of testing wrong.
As Congress begins to debate the next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which in its current version is NCLB, we must make sure they get it right.