Poor Scores Suggest Futility of No Child Left Behind

    NATIONAL NEWS — In the latest chapter of the checkered history of the No Child Left Behind Act, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released gloomy testing results for 2007. Last week, President George W. Bush issued a proclamation that America’s educational system has achieved outstanding results thanks to the No Child Left Behind based on these results. Supporters of the No Child Left Behind policy rallied behind the results, which show that American children have slightly improved their math scores since the program’s birth, but barely made progress in reading skills. Calling this a huge accomplishment is beyond the wildest interpretations of the word “success.”

    According to the results published by the NAEP, both the fourth grade reading and math scores improved by two points (on a scale of 500) during 2005. However, for eighth grade students the average reading score has actually fallen by one point since the No Child Left Behind Act was adopted. For a piece of legislation hailed as a massive step forward in educational reform, this is a stunning failure.

    While NAEP maintains that a two-point improvement in test scores is “statistically significant” on its Web site, because the standard deviation of the results is less than the difference between the scores, a two-point improvement amounts to a two fifths of a percent improvement.

    However, improving test scores by 0.4 percent really means nothing when a large percentage of students are not even capable of passing by NAEP standards. For example, according to NAEP, reaching a basic level of proficiency in fourth-grade math basically boils down to being able to do fourth grade level arithmetic. Happily claiming that fourth grade math scores are at their highest level in 17 years means nothing if 18 percent of the students cannot attain a basic rating at the required material, as is the case today, according to the NAEP. The picture worsens in the eighth grade, where almost 30 percent of the students cannot achieve NEAP standards for basic proficiency in grade-level material.

    Still more concerning is that reading scores have actually fallen since two years ago. Even if the average scores had gone up, over a quarter of eighth graders fail to read at a basic level, according to NAEP figures. This means that they are unable to “demonstrate a literal understanding of what they read and be able to make some interpretations … for text appropriate to eighth grade” according to the NAEP’s standards. In the face of such an awesome failure, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board’s only reply was that “the educational establishment needs to look at middle school reading to see why we’re not making progress there” in an interview with the New York Times.

    Supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act and other optimists would point to what appear to be solid gains made in mathematics over the past five years as evidence that the system is working. These gains, however, have been made as a result of schools being forced to focus completely on reading and mathematics as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act. Teaching students material specifically for a test, especially standardized tests, does not mean that students are actually proficient. One needs only to look at the number of college freshmen with sterling scores on their SAT and AP exams, who are unable to do well in classes that theoretically reflect the material they have already learned, to see that standardized tests cannot be the final word in determining academic ability.

    Not only do states have varying standards of achievement, but states lower their standards in order to achieve higher scores on state tests. When the test scores reflect only marginal gains, even in the face of lowered standards, claiming that the No Child Left Behind Act was a wild success falls somewhere between an error in judgment and an outright lie.

    The No Child Left Behind Act certainly has some innovative ideas for how to improve America’s public education system, including letting students transfer out of underperforming schools and aiming to improve the quality of teachers, but the focus on standardized testing leaves much to be desired. The mediocre results after five years under the initiative clearly show that more needs to be done to improve student achievement, which cannot be accomplished merely whitewashing the situation

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