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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 09/26/2011

Obama’s NCLB waivers: Do flaws outweigh benefits?

This was written by Monty Neill,  executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Boston-based non-profit dedicated to ending the misuse of tests. He is writing about the newly announced plan by President Obama to provide conditional relief to states from key provisions of No Child Left Behind.

By Monty Neill

The Obama administration’s new No Child Left Behind “flexibility” plan offers our struggling public schools a leap from the frying pan to the fire.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan provide no relief from No Child Left Behind’s massive over-use of testing — more testing than in any other advanced nation. In fact, they are demanding more, not less, testing. They provide no relief from NCLB’s mandated misuse of test scores for school accountability. And their plan will push states into adopting highly flawed and inaccurate uses of student test results to judge teachers and principals.

In these ways, the administration perpetuates the discredited policies that have so damaged American education. The waiver version of NCLB will continue the pressure to narrow the curriculum and teach to multiple-choice tests — pressures that have caused the recent explosion of cheating scandals. The flaws in the waiver plan may well outweigh the benefits to states of no longer having to meet unattainable “adequate yearly progress” goals.

Congress must intervene and make the fundamental changes to NCLB the administration has been unwilling to make. It should:

* significantly reduce the amount of mandated testing;

* help states design fundamentally different assessment systems;

* focus on evidence-based school improvement efforts; and

* provide the resources needed so that every child has a strong and equitable opportunity to acquire knowledge, skills and dispositions to be an effective, engaged citizen.

Let’s look more closely at the waiver details:

States will continue annual testing in reading and math of all children in grades 3-8, only with new tests based on “college and career standards.” Unfortunately, the new tests are likely to resemble current tests — but be harder to pass. Especially in schools serving low-income youth, this means schooling that is little more than test prep, a growing problem even in wealthier areas.

The waivers require states to adopt “student growth” measures and make them a “significant factor” in teacher and principal evaluation. This will push states to adopt statistical techniques that evidence shows are grossly inaccurate. It will put even more focus on boosting test scores instead of ensuring the all-around education of the whole child.

Dangerously, the administration says that for subjects in which a state does not have tests, in order to measure “growth” it will need to have, if not more tests, then “measures that are comparable” within a district. This could push districts to buy or create dozens of new exams, at great expense and likely great damage to now-untested subjects.

Educator evaluation systems will be expensive if done well. There is no evidence that spending large sums of money in this way is a better use of resources than are other, evidence-based efforts to improve schools. Perhaps cynically, states could commit to developing this, then go slow in the absence of funding and even drop it should Congress ever actually reauthorize ESEA.

The waiver plan does allow some wiggle room in some places. A state could, for example, not give student scores a fixed weight in a teacher’s evaluation but use low student scores as a reason for a closer look at the individual’s overall practice. A state could evaluate schools and educators using far richer evidence of student learning than standardized tests provide, such as samples of the work students do in school. To get that information, a state would have to build a different sort of assessment system. Congress and the administration have completely avoided helping states do this.

The NCLB testing requirements opened a “Pandora’s Box” of pests that keep proliferating: standardized tests in more subjects, interim and benchmark tests, and falsely named “formative” tests that are supposed to help improve instruction but mostly take more time away from it. This swarm of tests has frequently caused teaching and learning to succumb to multiple-choice questions, scripted curricula and constant monitoring of educators.

There are no indications that the administration intends to turn away from schooling that serves tests and test makers more than children. The pests will be very hard to put back into the box, and Duncan’s waivers help that not at all.

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 09/26/2011

 
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