Two recent studies, one issued by the <a target="_blank" href="">Northwest Evaluation Association</a>, show that the <a target="_blank" href="">“achievement gap” between white and minority children is not narrowing</a>, despite Bush’s <a target="_blank" href="">No Child Left Behind </a>law (often mocked as “Every Child Left Behind“), which was intended to close the achievement gap by 2014.  Now, why is this?

No Child Left Behind is, overall, not a bad piece of legislation.  Keep in mind that the NCLB bill was not simply Bush’s bill.  NCLB was a truly bipartisan effort, co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy, that was partly intended to update and expand the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, something that desperately needed to be done.

The basic provisions of NCLB require the states and school districts to hire highly-qualified teachers, fully-certified in their subject areas; develop more stringent standards for teacher certification in general; and implement standardized testing across the board.  In order to receive continued federal funding, schools must be 100% staffed with certified teachers and must make adequate yearly progress in raising test scores, particularly in relation to the achievement gap.  If they don’t do this, then the states must monitor them more closely and sometimes intervene to remedy the situation. 

So, what’s wrong with this?  Well, first, many education professionals and parents object to standardized tests because they consider them culturally-biased, and they force teachers to “teach to the test” in order to preserve their school’s standing and, in turn, their jobs.  And many don’t believe that “teaching to the test” makes kids any smarter.  They would prefer more subjective, qualitative forms of assessment and broader, sometimes more culture-specific curriculum.  Also, the tests differ slightly from state to state, and some are easier than others and rely more on rote info than critical thinking skills.

Standardized testing is only one indicator of progress and generally should be viewed as such, but it shouldn’t be discarded.  Used in combination with other forms of assessment, such as portfolio review, overall GPA, projects and individual achievements, results on college admissions tests, etc., it can provide a pretty good picture of student knowledge and skill attainment.  One hopes that individual teachers and school districts are not relying solely on standardized test results when they teach and evaluate their students.  One hopes that they are treating them as individuals, with individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles.  For the purpose of school assessment at the state and especially federal level, however, it is nearly impossible to gauge progress based on criteria that widely differs from state to state and school to school.  A consistent and more objective measure is needed.  The basic premise behind standardized testing is a sound one—apply a uniform quantitative measure that can easily be used at the state and federal level to analyze trends.  Standardized testing alone is not a 100% accurate measure of student progress, but it is a pretty good one. 

Are the tests culturally-biased, favoring European-Americans and their learning styles?  Is it true that culture plays a significant role in shaping how we process and demonstrate knowledge?  For sure.  But standardizing the basic skills needed to acquire and demonstrate knowledge in a diverse society is one function of education, in my opinion.  And, if started in preschool, it actually levels the playing field.  A properly developed standardized test is not about rote teaching or putting kids in little boxes so they all come out the same.  It’s about teaching everyone the same reasoning, critical thinking, computational, and language skills that we all need to communicate in the modern world and to accomplish our own particular objectives, whether that is to be a CEO, a dairy farmer, or a social worker.  “Teaching to the test” needn’t and shouldn’t be primarily about teaching students the specific content that it is expected will be on the tests (but it often is).  It should be about teaching them the basic skills necessary to deal with any age-appropriate content that is put in front of them.  And that’s damned hard work.

What’s really wrong with standardized testing?  It’s used to penalize the neediest and most disadvantaged schools by linking funding with progress.  While underperforming schools generally receive the lion’s share of state and federal subsidies, they often receive the least local funding and private support, due to an impoverished tax base.  Federal and state funds hardly make up for that.  So the schools with the greatest need often have the least amount of money.  How can they recruit “highly-qualified” teachers and diminish class sizes so that students get individual attention?  Something that will never happen should happen—local tax dollars dedicated to schools should be put in a state pot and redistributed equitably.

The big problem with NCLB is that it is an unfunded, or under funded, mandate.  It raises the bar for school achievement and teacher quality without proportionally raising education funding.  The billions that are being poured into Iraq plus the trillions that are being poured into the defense budget dwarf both the K-12 and higher education budget.  The shortsightedness of these priorities is remarkable.

Another problem with NCLB is that it puts the entire onus for closing the achievement gap on the schools and disregards the numerous socio-economic factors that contribute to it, expecting teachers to compensate for all of them.  Poverty is the best indicator for poor school performance, not color, so if more Black, Hispanic, and Native-American kids, relative to whites, live in poverty, then they are less likely to do well in school.

Teachers cannot be expected to compensate for the deficits that might occur when a single parent, who never received a proper education him or herself, must work 10-12 hours a day, sometimes at minimum wage, to make ends meet.  Such parents, due to various complex socio-economic factors, seldom have books, magazines, or newspapers in their homes; seldom if ever read to their kids; don’t take them to cultural events and activities; can’t travel with them; and often use the TV or the Nintendo as a baby sitter.  Sometimes, they don’t have high expectations for their kids, and that message gets through.  They often don’t have the time, energy, and/or knowledge to help their kids with their homework.  They don’t have the knowledge and experience to guide their children in college and career decisions.  In short, they often cannot provide a context for what their children are learning in school.  Many poor kids go to school on an empty stomach. 

This all seems obvious to me, but it is almost never mentioned when discussing the achievement gap.  It is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, in my opinion.  Somehow, the teacher, who sometimes works 10-12 hours a day for 40 or 50 thousand a year, is supposed to make up for the enormous deficits that these kids bring to school with them.  Middle and high school teachers are expected to instill a love of reading in the heart of a child who has grown up in a home without books and has never had anyone read to him.  This is simply too much to ask in many cases.

The best way to tackle these problems is through Head Start and similar preschool programs that get all kids on the same positive track from day one.  But despite the overwhelming success of such programs, they remain perennially under funded.  Raising the minimum wage so that it keeps pace with inflation would also help, as would finding ways to lift the lower classes out of poverty rather than keep them cycling in it through limited or no access to credit, car loans, insurance, mortgages, and reasonably-priced services.  Someone in the US needs to take a hint from Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus who helped lift perhaps millions of people out of poverty by offering them capital (<a target="_blank" href="">micro-credit</a>) to start businesses and change their lives.  And if you want to close the achievement gap that, I believe, is one place to start.

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