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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 08/09/2012

New school year: doubling down on failed ed policy

This was written by Lisa Guisbond, a policy analyst for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a Boston-based organization that aims to improve standardized testing practices and evaluations of students, teachers and schools.

By Lisa Guisbond

Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt credited his teammate, Jamaican runner Yohan “The Beast,” Blake, with helping him improve by beating him in earlier races. The defeats forced Bolt to reflect on what he needed to do differently to improve. Bolt’s victory modeled a powerful lesson: Always try to learn from your mistakes, rather than repeat them.


President Obama and Arne Duncan (AP)
As children head back to school after a decade of No Child Left Behind, will they benefit from lessons learned from this sweeping and expensive failure? Will schools do anything differently to avoid NCLB’s narrowed curriculum, teaching to the test and stagnant achievement? Sadly, instead of learning from the beastly NCLB, the Obama administration is doubling down on a failed policy.

Here are two examples of NCLB’s mistakes and how coming “reforms” will continue or intensify the damage, not correct it.

First, pressure to meet NCLB’s test score targets led schools to focus attention on the limited skills standardized tests measure and to narrow their curriculum. These negative effects fell most severely on classrooms serving low-income and minority children. Teachers there were under the most pressure to raise test scores by concentrating on narrow test preparation instead of providing a rich and engaging curriculum. Many districts administered large numbers of additional tests supposedly to prepare students for end-of-year exams. Despite the focus on tested subjects, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed NCLB failed to significantly increase academic performance or narrow achievement gaps.

Sadly, the next wave of so-called “reforms,” such as the Common Core State Standards and new exams to measure them, show little promise of reversing these failures. Rather, they threaten to increase time and other resources spent on testing instead of unleashing teachers’ and students’ creative potential.

More grades will be tested, and students will face multiple tests during the year. These “new, improved” tests promise to do a better job of measuring “critical thinking” and other higher-order learning. However, grant applications from the two multi-state testing consortia reveal that the bulk of the testing will be multiple-choice and short answer. Examples of possible test questions are, at best, marginally superior to current exams. Already, major publishers, such as Pearson, are pasting new covers on the same old products and marketing them as “Common Core.”

Second, NCLB demonstrated many ways that high-stakes standardized testing damages and corrupts education. In addition to narrowing curriculum and encouraging teaching to the test, the NCLB era has produced waves of cheating. In the past four years alone, there have been confirmed reports of cheating in 36 states and the District of Columbia. Teaching to state tests has caused score inflation, resulting in misleading results that are not reflected on other measures of learning. Struggling students have been pushed out of school to raise the test score bottom line, with far too many youth entering the prison pipeline. School climate has suffered as fear of failure is passed down from administrators to teachers to students. Many good teachers have chosen to leave rather than comply with drill-and-kill requirements and corrupt their students’ education.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledges that NCLB narrowed curriculum and caused teaching to the test. However, his “reforms” don’t address the underlying problems. Instead, Duncan’s NCLB waiver scheme and the Race to the Top programs raise the stakes even higher by requiring states to link teacher evaluations to student test results. If teachers were not already under tremendous pressure to boost scores, they will be now with their jobs on the line.

Author and lecturer Sir Ken Robinson often speaks about the importance of making mistakes, to learn from them and try again. He says educational standardization and pressure for conformity stunt our children’s growth by teaching them to fear and avoid mistakes. “Conformity and standardization and sitting still and doing multiple-choice questions and being tested at the end — these features of education are inimical to the kind of original thinking and confident imaginations that underpin real innovation,” Robinson says. What we need, he adds, is not “reform” but “revolution.”

To unleash our children’s potential, we need to unleash the full capacity of teachers and schools. That means acknowledging the mistakes of NCLB, learning from them and fundamentally changing course. People across the nation understand that need, as shown by strong support for the national and Texas resolutions on high-stakes testing.

Too few policymakers have learned the lesson, so we must educate or replace them. Then parents can look forward to our children returning to schools that stir their imaginations and creativity.

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