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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.

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.