The No Child Left Behind Act is up for renewal.  It always did leave a lot to be desired.

Most famous was its promise of having all U.S. students proficient in reading and math by 2014.  That was the year the U.S. would again be number one in education; that year has come and gone.

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Due to differences in ability, students achieve on a spectrum.  No nation on earth has ever figured out how to turn all students into accomplished academicians.  Indeed, the only possible way to accomplish that is through a testing gimmick: set the bar ridiculously low and voila, each child is proficient.  But that insults the intelligence of everyone.

Interesting, then, that universal testing is the centerpiece of No Child Left Behind.  More reasonable goals are in order.  Our schools can move the entire range of academic performance upward.  Educators can reduce the stubborn gaps in academic achievement that are tied to racial discrimination, poverty, and linguistic differences.  We can move the needle, but we can’t do it through testing alone.

Don’t get me wrong.  Testing has its place.  Students and their educators should be held accountable, and testing is one way to demonstrate that students are learning what we claim to teach them, an independent verification of performance.  Otherwise all we have to go on are student grades and grade-level promotions, and we all know that these practices mean different things in different districts and schools.

Testing is also an effective gauge of progress for reducing achievement gaps in our schools. The Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, should ensure that distinctions in academic achievement are not reducible to the racial boxes that we check.  There continue to be many schools and school districts—I’m talking about the ones with very good reputations—that do unremarkable work with students of color.  The kind of reporting that No Child Left Behind requires brings such work into the sunlight.

Testing’s okay, but if testing is the centerpiece of 21st Century federal policy, then educators in the districts and schools with high percentages of struggling students make testing their centerpiece too. That would be a shame. Education is too important.  Rather than treating working-class students, of whatever race or languages spoken, to drills and practice tests for weeks on end, we should be treating all Americans to a challenging curriculum delivered wisely and creatively.

Here is my wish list for the No Child Left Behind reauthorization:

  1. Reduce the scale and frequency of the yearly tests. Do we need to test every student in grades 3 through 8 every year (and once in high school) in English and math, along with the occasional science test?  Who does that benefit really, other than the professionals at testing consortiums? Why not test representative samples of students at reduced frequency?  Why not require high school students to take just one test that could do double duty, such as the SAT or ACT?
  2. There is some sentiment to stop using the tests to measure achievement gaps within districts and schools. That would be a mistake.  A principal reason for the relatively low performance of U.S. students, on average, in international comparisons is the wide chasm between our highest-performing and lowest-performing students (we have a lot of both). Continue to disaggregate test results, but tie them to incentives for narrowing the gaps: equal enforcement of school discipline, racially and economically integrated academic programs, and widespread participation in the fine and performing arts.
  3. Provide incentives for regional leadership academies and for teacher preparation programs that put more emphasis on STEM and the arts, especially in the early grades. If we want our schools to graduate students with the talents to make Connecticut a leader in the global economy, we need to keep the focus on teacher-leaders who combine top notch academic preparation with pedagogical sophistication.

With the right preparation and the right incentives, the next generation of principals and teachers will be ready for work throughout Connecticut.  All students in all grades will have teachers we can cherish.  That’s not something the latest standardized test can create.

 Jim Carl, Ph.D., is Dean of the Isabelle Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

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