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No Child Left Behind brought strict standards, unattainable goals

When No Child Left Behind passed with bipartisan support from Congress in 2001, it promised a new system of accountability that would raise academic expectations and bring all students – rich, poor, black, white, mentally or physically disabled, limited English speakers – to the same level of achievement.

But more than a decade later, as the state is poised to receive a waiver from parts of the law, New Hampshire educators say it instead created a system that encouraged “teaching to the test,” ignored student growth and set an impossible deadline of 100 percent proficiency in math and English by 2014.

“You would never say to a doctor every patient that you have has to be 100 percent healthy. That would be ridiculous,” said Kristen Halverson, a Merrimack Valley High School English teacher. “There came a time when we realized, hey, this is just not going to be doable.”

The law required each state to develop uniform standards in reading and math and to create standardized tests based on them; in New Hampshire, it was the New England Common Assessment Program. Each state had to set its own testing benchmarks, with “proficient” being the highest. Schools had to gather testing data on the whole school population as well as specific groups: economically disadvantaged, racial or ethnic groups, students with disabilities and those who spoke limited English.

Each year, a higher percentage of students from the whole and within each group had to score “proficient.” By 2014, all students in all groups were supposed to hit that mark. If any one group of students missed the mark each year, the whole school was failed. And if a school failed two years in a row, it faced consequences that escalated each consecutive year.

Since the standards got continuously higher and the law didn’t account for growth, more and more schools in New Hampshire joined the failing list each year. Without the waiver, about 75 percent of the state’s schools would be labeled as failing next year. With the waiver, the state has developed a new system that focuses more attention on the schools struggling the most and measures success in student growth over a period of years.

Faulty metrics

With so much riding on test scores, critics of the law say it encouraged educators to teach to the test.

“It’s taken teachers from being a master educator concerned with learning to . . . a test prep person, a test coach person, and those roles are fundamentally different,” said Mark Joyce, president of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

In elementary schools in particular, where one person usually teaches every subject, some teachers narrowed the curriculum to put a greater emphasis on reading and math, said Scott McGilvray, president of the state’s chapter of the National Education Association, a teachers union.

“Specifically I think we stepped away from a lot of science and social studies and put the emphasis on reading, English and mathematics.”

Further, the law didn’t give any credit to improving scores if the scores didn’t hit the achievement mark. Since the standards rose each year, failing students would have more ground to make up to get back on track.

One year at Merrimack Valley High School, for example, the special education students did not meet proficiency. The school targeted interventions for those students, and the next year they passed. But economically disadvantaged students failed that same year. Unlike special needs students, teachers couldn’t target those students for improvement because their economic status is measured by free and reduced lunch, which is private information.

Not only did that make intervention harder, but the district was labeled as failing because at least one group didn’t pass for two straight years. The improvement among special education students had no impact on the school’s status.

“You just sit there afterward and you go, okay, we put all this effort and energy in, which was appropriate, we responded,” said Merrimack Valley High Principal Mike Jette. “Then you get a surprise attack.”

Expecting every single student to reach the same benchmark regardless of his or her situation just isn’t realistic, critics say. Teachers of disabled students who physically can’t take the test, for example, have to demonstrate their students understand the material in other ways, said Mike Macri, a special education teacher at Broken Ground School and president of the district’s teachers union, the Concord Education Association. Three years ago the state started requiring video assessments, mandating 12 different videos up to eight minutes showing the child mastering the standard.

For teachers dealing with a number of special needs students, following those test requirements is a time-consuming task that takes away from other critical parts of the school day, Macri said.

As schools failed, they faced penalties that were phased in over time. Early penalties required schools to use their Title 1 funding to create improvement plans, provide supplemental education services such as private tutoring, and accommodate students who wanted to attend a different district school. Persistently failing schools were required to implement overhauls that could include firing principals, firing the majority of teachers or, in the worst-case scenario, closing down schools. The state never had to close a school under this law.

Above all, critics say, the punitive nature of the system lowered community confidence and teacher morale.

“Assuming that because I label you a failure now you’re going to become more motivated to become better at the job you do, after a while that turns people off,” McGilvray said.

A new focus

The expectations that all students could succeed regardless of background is one positive effect of No Child Left Behind and is something that will continue under the waiver. Focusing on subgroups challenged educators not to accept lower standards for certain populations, Jette said.

“I think on some level schools kind of asked for this intervention,” Jette said. “There were some kids that were slipping through the cracks, and not all kids (were) being held to high standards.”

The law also emphasized using testing and other data to find problem areas. After the first year of testing, for example, Merrimack Valley saw low marks in writing, which prompted a revamping of the writing curriculum across all subjects.

At Pittsfield Middle/High School, the greater focus on data helped target areas for intervention as part of a turnaround effort, said Pittsfield Superintendent John Freeman. Under the law, Pittsfield Middle/High School received a designation of “persistently low achieving,” among a small pool of the state’s districts that struggled most. Other districts, such as Franklin, received federal School Improvement Grants that imposed some of the law’s turnaround principles of removing principals and restructuring schools.

It also brought in funding for professional development that was available for all teachers. At Pittsfield, teachers across all subjects, including science and physical education, are required to include English and math standards in their curriculum. The middle/high school has now developed a long-term plan with benchmarks for student success beyond reading and math and into areas such as discipline. Although the achievement goals set by No Child Left Behind were faulty, Freeman said, the new focus on data and accountability had a positive effect on schools.

“In the end it strengthened the teachers to do their job, to better do their job,” he said.

The next step

In its application for a waiver, the state Department of Education had to create its own system for measuring student achievement and aiding struggling schools.

The state expects to receive the waiver though it hasn’t officially been notified yet. Officials caution that the proposal could include caveats. Not counting New Hampshire, 37 other states have received waivers from certain provisions of the law.

Under the waiver, the lowest 15 percent of schools would be targeted with resources and support from the state to raise student achievement. They would be labeled “priority” or “focus” instead of “failing” or “in need of improvement.” Student growth will be a main factor in determining achievement, and subgroups of students will still be evaluated.

Several bills have also been introduced in Congress to reauthorize the law, which was originally up for renewal in 2007. Congress failed to act then and has failed to act every year since. If a new law was passed, it would override the waivers.

Among area educators, the hope is that the new system will give schools and teachers the support to improve student achievement without the pressure of meeting unattainable goals.

“I know we are supportive of the waiver,” said Joyce, of the administrators association. “It fundamentally changes from a punishment system to a support system.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

Legacy Comments7

It is nice to agree Mauser. I do not know how teachers deal with their classrooms these days. They pretty much have to be parents, special ed professionals, feed the kids, and deal with lousy parents who threaten to sue at every turn if their child is not provided with a specialist to address an issue that the parent should be adressing. I have a friend that is an aide and the stories she tells me are unbelievable about parents she deals with who have kids coded.

It's nice to actually find common ground we can agree on. I couldn't agree more but I would go one step further. It used to be that if you couldn't successfully complete the work and get a passing grade you didn't advance. But in our politically correct world, we have been blessed with social promotions so we don't stigmatize the child by holding him back. This has created a monster in that now a child knows they don't have to do anything because their are no consequences. That coupled with parental indifference and you have a recipe for ultimate failure. A perfect example is something that happened to my wife, a teacher. Homework and projects that were due in March were never turned in. A weekly report to parents about missing work went out , 2 days prior to the end of school the parent wanted to know what could be done to raise the childs grade!! Don't ignore the weekly and monthly emailed update reports. Now it's the teacher's fault, go figure.

I have issues with NCLB also. But what is missing in this article is why it was instituted in the first place. Our schools were on a steady decline with regards to reading, math and science. The lesson here is that govt has no clue what they are doing when they create laws, and that our education system refuses to accept the fact that many of their programs do not work. That is something that fair minded folks refuse to address. Instead we get more excuses why our education system is failing like, poverty, no parent involvement, more money, etc. We cannot ignore the fact that many of our kids cannot do the basics. As long as we keep trying new fad teaching methods, give parents a pass on doing their part, and put more roles on our teachers, we will never be able to produce good students.

And what's missing in this comment is a very important motivation behind NCLB. The punitive actions prescribed for schools that can't / don't make the grade lead to significant defunding of urban schools - primarily in poor and minority neighborhoods. And who should just happen to be there to fill the breach? You can guess. It's Michelle Rhee and her cohort of charter school fraudsters. It's ironic that the bill which purports to improve public education for all contains the mechanism to virtually destroy it for some.

"71 percent of New Hampshire schools failing to make the grade, the state's top education official gave an explanation used by students since education began. She blamed the test." "The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind is its ninth iteration), which intruded the federal government into this traditionally state and local responsibility, said “nothing in this act” shall authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct, or control” a state's, local educational agency's or school's curriculum."

Lets add some context to your skewed "fact". 71% of the identified schools failed to meet the target improvement. Not 71% are failing.

Well Mauser, before NCLB what did we have to estimate how the kids were doing and what level they were at? NCLB did point out where the ussues were in regards to teacher standards and the sub groups like poverty levels, english speaking, special ed etc. So we actually did get that info out of it, which we did not have before. Implementation seems to be the issue in education I believe. Unfortuantely, implementation requires both the parent and the teacher as co captains in the child's education and progress. For now we have the teachers for the most part invested in the kids, not the parents. Till that changes, nothing will work in my book. Parents are not held accountable. Not even required to make a lunch, get books out of the library and read to their kid, etc. In my day teachers were backed up by the parents, because parents saw how their kids did as a reflection on them. Not so anymore. When you see a kid arguing with a parent in the supermarket, and you see the parent bribing, begging the kid to stop etc, you know that the parent is no longer in charge.

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