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No one test can measure student ability or teacher effectiveness

There is one central lie to the No Child Left Behind Act. The lie is that one test can measure the effectiveness of education.

One test cannot accurately measure student ability or teacher effectiveness. It is also not true that half of Minnesota’s schools are “failing” while half are “making progress” or “meeting expectations.”

The entire policy premise of No Child Left Behind is flawed, and the sooner it is flushed out of Minnesota, the healthier our education system will be.

The Minnesota Department of Education released the 2010 NCLB results on Aug. 10. In those results, almost half the schools in the state are listed under NCLB standards as failing; overall numbers were similar to 2009.

NCLB, signed in 2001 and enacted in 2002, requires schools nationwide to test students once each year, then disaggregate the results to show how minorities, special-education students, limited English speakers and low-income students performed. If enough students in one subgroup fail to meet what NCLB terms Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), then the entire school fails.

Upon several failures, punishments meted out
If the school fails over the course of several years, increasing punishments are meted out that ultimately lead to firing the principal and staff or the dissolution of the school. Each year more students are required to pass the test, ultimately leading to 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

Teachers and school administrators aren’t stupid. They don’t want to be punished, so they adapt the education they provide to fit the requirements of the test. The result is heavy emphasis on math and reading at the expense of science, social studies, art, physical education and other subjects.

Teachers and administrators are repulsed by this perversion of education. They became educators to help create whole students, not to create students adept at taking a test at the expense of experiencing the richness of an education.

In 2007, Minnesota 2020 joined with Macalester College to survey teachers at Eastern Carver County Schools about NCLB. The survey found that almost 90 percent said they were under pressure to improve student test scores, about 88 percent believe NCLB has causes teachers to ignore important aspects of the curriculum, almost 90 percent say NCLB unfairly rewards and punishes many teachers, and 65 percent said identifying schools that have not met Adequate Yearly Progress will not lead to school improvement.

Two years of results
Clearly, the troops on the ground know NCLB is an ineffective measurement of student performance. Here are Minnesota’s 2009 and the just-release 2010 results:

AYP – School



Making AYP



Not Making AYP






*Results may not add up because some schools report insufficient data to determine AYP status.

The numbers have remained static. Some call this a victory and a sign that the NCLB system is working. Some say that Minnesotans should be proud that their schools are treading water and holding their own against the demands of the system.

An unrealistic program based on flawed policy
The truth is that these numbers lie. These numbers aren’t static because teachers aren’t trying hard enough or because students aren’t smart enough. What they actually show is that NCLB is an unrealistic program based on flawed policy that does nothing to promote a quality education.

Perhaps the most flawed part of NCLB is that it involves federal school revenue only, and federal school revenue is based on the number of children in poverty in the school. Therefore, districts without enough low-income students get to ignore NCLB’s punishments. This year, 342 low-income schools in Minnesota face consequences. Another 94 are making adequate yearly progress but are still facing penalties. The number of schools forced to take the most extreme corrective action — restructuring — doubled from 13 in 2009 to 26 in 2010.

Will the law change? That discussion is occurring now in Washington D.C. NCLB is the continuation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). When President George W. Bush signed ESEA’s reauthorization in 2002, it was renamed the No Child Left Behind Act. The law is up for reauthorization again but has been delayed in Congress for years. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the ranking Republican on the House Labor and Education Committee, doesn’t think the law will be renewed before 2011.

The Obama administration has proposed its Race to the Top initiative as a foundation for ESEA reauthorization. Instead of the punitive measures that are at the heart of NCLB, Race to the Top would require states and districts to enact Washington-demanded reforms before they receive funds from the federal government.

The wisdom of exchanging NCLB with Race to the Top policy remains to be debated. As of today, NCLB is the law of the land. Until that changes, we have to understand that NCLB lies about our schools. They are not failing. They do not need restructuring. The tests do not reflect the abilities of our students, our teachers or our schools.

John Fitzgerald is an Education Policy Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 08/23/2010 - 07:19 am.

    “…we have to understand that NCLB lies about our schools. They are not failing. They do not need restructuring.”

    That’s a bit of a stretch. Look at the comments section of virtually every news organization website and you will see a daily buffet of poor spelling and poor grammar.

  2. Submitted by Larry Copes on 08/23/2010 - 09:10 am.

    “Look at the comments section of virtually every news organization website and you will see a daily buffet of poor spelling and poor grammar.”

    I can’t disagree with that claim. But I’m not sure schools have ever been very successful at teaching the rather arbitrary rules of English spelling and grammar. Before the notorious online new forums, however, poor written syntax was not so public.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/23/2010 - 09:38 am.

    Actually, NCLB has MANY categories of Federal (‘Title’) aid in it, so virtually every school district can come under it unless it chooses not to accept Federal aid for special populations of any sort.

  4. Submitted by Iven Coffee on 08/23/2010 - 12:58 pm.

    No one test can measure student ability or teacher effectiveness? Your entire premise is flawed and poorly reasoned. Student ability and teacher effectiveness can be measured. Just because NCLB doesn’t really accomplish it does not mean it cannot be done.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/23/2010 - 01:04 pm.

    John, how much funding does MN2020 receive from EdMN in return for your services?

    I’ve heard figures ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, but I think everyone would appreciate the cold, hard facts.

  6. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 08/23/2010 - 01:23 pm.

    As a parent who is new to the public school system (my eldest son will be happy to tell you that he’s entering kindergarten in exactly 9 days), I was aghast when I opened the letter which said that our new school was failing according to NCLB standards.

    It took another look at the document (a multi-page grid) to realize that almost ALL of the schools on the list were failing. Clearly, something is grossly wrong with either the measurement standard or the granularity of the rating system (or both).

    I find it disheartening that my son’s teachers may not be able to fully respond to his unique skills, interests and needs. I’m not worried about him learning to read and write. I’m much more worried about his education being engaging, fulfilling, and suited to him.

    Come to think of it, that is the exact opposite of an education built around the answers to standardized tests.

  7. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 08/23/2010 - 01:42 pm.

    “Student ability and teacher effectiveness can be measured.”

    Before this can happen, first you must actually define those two incredibly complicated concepts: “student ability” and “teacher effectiveness”.

    Given the vast diversity of individual abilities, interests, circumstances, teaching/learning styles, classroom dynamics, etc., I would submit that defining either of those concepts in a significantly useful manner is nearly impossible.

    If you cannot define it, you cannot test for it. Period.

    NCLB appears to be founded on the notion that something which can be objectively measured (i.e. test scores) is sufficient to stand in for a real definition of the aforementioned terms.

    Would that the world of teaching and learning were that simple.

  8. Submitted by Tom Miller on 08/23/2010 - 01:58 pm.

    No Child Left Behind is a clever scheme to completely destroy public education by 2014. In that year, every school in the country will, by law, have every student performing at 100% of grade level – or suffer the consequences. Normal variations in human intelligence, from genious to retarded, make this impossible. Yet that’s the law. And what will replace public schools? Private schools, which are exempt from NCLB testing? Private schools, which can charge whatever they like for tuition and are not legally held to any student achievement standards or accountability?

    No progress can be made in bettering American public education until NCLB is scrapped, completely.

    Race to the Top is a publicity scheme, which gives the appearance of the federal government doing something for education when it is not. The RTTP winners will receive grants; everyone else is a loser. The total budget for RTTP grants was in the neighborhood of $4.5 billion. If the federal government were to fund its promised 40% of the cost of federal special education mandates, it would be spending roughly an additional $26 or $27 billion on ALL public schools in America.

    For decades, America lead the world with its public education system. One the whole, we’ve let it slide into mediocrity. The two biggest forms of salvation offered by the federal government have been NCLB, which is based on pubishment and destruction, and RTTP, which is based on unproven reform techniques and which will at best only provide a tiny fraction of the resources needed by public education.

    If we are to improve education, all schools need the resources to teach and truly educate our young prople.

    In my school district, only 3% of education funding comes from the federal government. If we, as parents and citizens, truly want our children to be educated and become the future workers who will maintain our society’s prosperity, we’re going to have to fund it at the state and local level – and hopefully the federal government will either stay out of the way or change direction and help provide true value and resources to all schools.

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/23/2010 - 02:53 pm.

    I would encourage everyone to read former Assistant Education Secretary for Research Diane Ravitz’s book and/or articles on this issue. She left her Bush administration post after realizing the weaknesses and dangers inherent in No Child Left Behind — and considers that Race to the Top may be just as bad for American students and parents and teachers.

    (Thomas: You have now asked twice today how much money Education Minnesota contributes in order to get favorable coverage from MinnPost. I’ll suggest again that you see their 2009 Annual Report for a complete list of donors. Education Minnesota is NOT on it.)

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/23/2010 - 04:54 pm.

    What about the parents? Have we totally abandoned our responsibility to encourage our children? To enforce the discipline needed to learn? My relative has been a teacher for over 30 years and the one defining change she has seen is the parents. They make excuses and defend the kid no matter what.

    It used to be a big deal if a teacher had to send home a note. The kid would actually be held accountable for his bad behavior or poor coursework. Nowadays it’s more likely that the parent will just blame the teacher and make a complaint as their child certainly couldn’t be the problem.

    This is a core problem, but I think it’s indicative of our society as a whole. You can work on the periphery and make small changes (better distribution of funds, greater teacher accountability, etc…), but real progress will never be made unless parents re-learn their priorities.

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