The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Principal to Congress: I was wrong when I supported NCLB. Learn from my mistake.

George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind education measure into law in 2002. (WIN MCNAMEE/REUTERS)

Eight years after No Child Left Behind was supposed to be rewritten by Congress, it just may happen — sooner rather than later. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee who just became the chairman of the Senate education committee, says he is determined to move fast on a rewrite, pushing a bill to the Senate floor by the end of February.

Perhaps the most contentious issue facing Congress is what to do about the mandate that all students in Grades 3 -8 and once in high school take standardized tests with high-stakes consequences. In draft legislation, Alexander is offering two options in regard to the mandate; one calling for the continuation of that assessment schedule and the other calling for giving local educational agencies power to determine whether it wants students to take annual standardized tests. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has urged that the testing mandate remain, and Sen. Patty Murray, the key Democrat on the Senate education committee, agrees. The American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union, is calling for “grade span” testing in which students continue to be tested as NCLB mandates but the results are only high stakes once in elementary, once in middle school and one in high school.

Alexander has asked for input from the public on his staff discussion draft by Monday, February 2,  at: Comments will be shared with all members of the Senate education committee.

Here is an open letter to Alexander and his committee about the NCLB rewrite that was written by an award-winning principal, Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York. She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010, tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Burris has been exposing the botched school reform program in New York for years on this blog, and it is worth reading. Some of her earlier posts are listed at the bottom.

Here is her open letter to Alexander:

Dear Senator Alexander:
It is time for a time-out from annual testing. No Child Left Behind has not delivered its promise to children, but instead denies them the enriched education that they deserve. I clearly remember when NCLB began because I supported it.
I was convinced that if we could see the gaps in test results, we would identify the opportunity gaps that caused them, and then create more equitable schools.  I believed that NCLB results would inspire us to desegregate our schools and our classrooms. Surely there would be more financial support for schools with high needs kids. I thought that children who were falling behind would get quality summer programs to help them catch up, and class sizes in the younger grades would drop. Student attendance and behavior would improve.
None of the above came to pass.
The gap between my hope and the outcome of NCLB is far wider than any gap in test scores could ever be. My skeptical friends were right, and I was wrong. The good work that could have occurred with the right policies was stymied as all eyes and tax dollars, focused on the tests.
Let’s look at the evidence.
We use scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to measure long-term trends in mathematics and literacy achievement. There has been some increase in those scores. It is true that black and Latino students score higher on NAEP than they did 30 years ago. Most of that increase, however, occurred during the desegregation years of the 1970s and 1980s, well before the 2001 passage of NCLB, which was described as “an act to close the achievement gap.”
There is no evidence that annual testing has narrowed the achievement gap, and there is no evidence that NCLB contributed to a NAEP score rise that was well under way prior to its enactment.
The only positive increase we have seen in the past decade has been an increase in the graduation rate. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has the mistaken idea that NCLB,  with its mandate to test students annually from grades 3-8 and once in high school, is the cause of this modest increase. There is no evidence to support that assertion.
A decade ago the term “credit recovery” did not exist. Now that high schools are under increasing pressure to get kids out in four years because of NCLB accountability, many high school courses have become almost “fail proof” due to practices known as credit recovery. Such practices often allow students to submit a minimal amount of work to make up for bad grades and poor attendance. Principals in urban high schools are under pressure for kids to pass, and that pressure is then transmitted in turn to teachers. I am glad that graduation rates are up and I agree students deserve second chances, but it is doubtful that the increase in graduation rates reflect real increases in learning or better work habits on the part of students.
The outcome described above is typical of NCLB accountability reforms. When school systems are given external goals with punitive consequences, they will inevitably use strategies that seek to accomplish the goal, even though some of the effects are not in the best interest of students. When the focus is on math and ELA scores, and the school has high-needs students with low scores, you can bet your bottom dollar that music, art, science and social studies instruction will be reduced or  abandoned. Test prep works — and a curriculum can be (and often is) designed to teach to the test. The more difficult the test is, the more intense the narrow preparation.
That is why parents are now rebelling against the tests of the Common Core. That rebellion has spread to the suburbs because in the face of plummeting scores, many suburban schools have turned to the same practices that have been driving urban schools since 2002, when NCLB was signed into law. Parents are rebelling as they see their children’s education deteriorate. There were 60,000 students who opted out of Common Core standardized testing in New York in 2014, with the majority in schools that serve middle-class, suburban communities. I assure you that their anger is directed at the state tests — not the tests that teachers create to assess their own, as some have disingenuously suggested.
The irony is that all of this is happening at a time when we are discovering just how insignificant test scores really are in predicting post-secondary success. Colleges are increasingly moving away from the SAT and ACT as research shows that student grades and courses are a far better indicator of college success. Many colleges no longer require standardized test scores. A recent study, which compared the success of students who provide SAT or ACT scores with those who don’t, found that both groups’ college success and graduation rates were essentially the same.
One of the rationales for Common Core accountability tests is that we need harder tests to measure “college readiness.” The complaint is that too many students are in college remediation. Ironically, colleges are now realizing that test scores are not the best indicator of who needs remedial support. Jerry Kornbluth, the dean of Professional Studies at Nassau Community College, recently told The Nassau County Curriculum directors that his college suspects it has over-remediated in the past. This excellent community college is now exploring a multiple measures approach which will include high school GPA, some test scores, a student interview and extracurricular activities. They found that many students with SAT scores as low as 470 did just fine, and who needs remediation is far more complex than a score could show.
Any high school principal worth their salt could tell you this. Students are not passive receptacles into which we pour knowledge and then crank out a test score. Learning is work, and students must do their share of it. Successful students must be in school, be attentive and responsible, and they need adults who support their schoolwork in the home. Even if all of the above is in place, and students attend the very best schools, test scores will still vary based on learning disabilities, talents, biases in the tests, and the speed at which students process and integrate information.
The idea that we can set a mark we arbitrarily label proficiency and then expect all students to achieve it (or even make equal progress), is absurd. Standardized tests are designed to sort students.  Make no mistake: that sorting function of the accountability tests has a disparate, negative impact on students of color and students of poverty — the very students President Lyndon Johnson hoped to assist with the1965 passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the latest version. Low scores from accountability tests are used to determine who is left back, disproportionately affecting students of color and poverty. Decades of research show that grade retention doesn’t work and actually increases the chances of students dropping out. State accountability scores are used to determine who gets into enrichment programs and selective schools in urban choice programs — again disadvantaging the students the act was designed to help.
As we engage in the debate on the issue of how to fix NCLB, I ask that your committee remember that the American public school system was built on the belief that local communities cherish their children and have the right and responsibility, within sensible limits, to determine how they are schooled.
While the federal government has a very special role in ensuring that our students do not experience discrimination based on who they are or what their disability may be, Congress is not a National School Board.
Although our locally elected school boards may not be perfect, they represent one of the purest forms of democracy we have. Bad ideas in the small do damage in the small and are easily corrected. Bad ideas at the federal level result in massive failure and are far harder to fix.
In closing, please understand that I do not dismiss the need to hold schools accountable. The use and disaggregation of data has been an important tool that I regularly use as a principal to improve my own school. However, the unintended, negative consequences that have arisen from mandated, annual testing and its high stakes uses have proven testing to be not only an ineffective tool, but a destructive one as well.
The time has come to devise an accountability system with multiple measures, flexible and varied student assessment, and modest grade span testing. I support Option 1, which is described here on Page 16. It is the far better choice for our schools and students.


Carol Burris, Ed.D.
Principal of South Side High School

Other pieces by Burris include:

Principal finds major errors in state college remediation reports

Four Common Core ‘flimflams’

Something is wrong when…

‘You are so smart. Why did you become a teacher?’