Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Mission accomplished? Not yet.

The Center for Education Policy released its third annual report on NCLB today. It's a mixed review. The results show that test scores have gone up in about 75% of states and districts and that the achievement gap has narrowed. But, according to the AP's account of the study:

[S]tates and school districts say they don't have the money or staffing to improve the thousands of schools that have failed to meet progress goals and face federal penalties.

Many schools leaders also say the law's testing requirements for disabled children and limited-English learners are "unfair, unrealistic, inappropriate or instructionally meaningless," according to the annual review by the independent Center on Education Policy.

Overall, in its third year of implementation, the law is showing preliminary signs of success but also severe difficulties that must be fixed, said center president Jack Jennings.

"The law runs the risk of being good at identifying problems, but not being good at providing the help to solve those problems," Jennings said.

I really like Jennings' quote. I think it cuts through everything and gets to the heart of the matter: tests are diagnostic. They tell us the problems but don't by themselves do anything to fix the problems.

NCLB's formulae for fixing the problems amounts to tutoring, transfers, and the threat of firings and/or school takeovers. The report shows that very few students are using the transfer options because schools are generally too overcrowded to accept them. It also shows that there is very little data at this point on the effectiveness of tutoring, though I generally think this is a very good part of the law.

But the biggest problems reported by the schools are staffing and funding. If every single student in every demographic is to pass math, science, and reading tests, schools are going to need more resources.

Predictably, Asst. Sec. of Education Ray Simon said, "The perpetual cry of more money, once again echoed in this report, simply does not comport with the facts." Well, that depends which facts you consider. I agree, of course, that money by itself will not improve education but it stands to reason that if you are going to require greater productivity from anything, you must increase its capabilities. I can't just tell my computer to go faster, I've got to get a new processor or more memory. And that costs money.

But funding isn't the only story here. There's a cautionary tale to be told. In nearly every situation in which high stakes testing has been instituted, test scores spike after the second or third years. The increased emphasis on the tests and the exclusion of other areas of focus cause that to happen. But usually the results start to flatline shortly thereafter. I think declaring victory because test scores improved after the third year would be extremely premature.

Here's hoping the Education Department doesn't fly any Mission Accomplished banners from their walls. (For more on the report, see EdWeek's article here.)


Anonymous superdestroyer said...

Want to bet that every school that claims that it has no money for tutoring or testing has a minority set aside program for contracting. As long as any government has money to pay above market rates for items under a minority set aside program, it needs to shut up about not having enough funds.

3:59 AM  

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