Longform

So Much for No Child Left Behind

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One student told researchers: "Well, that last two years that I was in ninth grade, there were finally classes that I passed and got credit for. But they would put me in the same classes again, so then they would catch that later in the year, which they couldn't do nothing about it, you know."

Another said he was driven out of school by his repeated placement in the algebra class he had passed.

"Oh, yeah, they had me taking algebra forever. I passed the first year, so in the second year I just decided not to go. I tried to get it [the course schedule] fixed, but they wouldn't fix it. So after the third week trying to get it fixed, I just stopped going."
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Other than the results themselves, probably the most publicity about Texas test scores in recent years has concerned cheating. Usually it involves teachers and administrators fixing score sheets or suggesting answers.

It doesn't take cheating to make this system bad, McNeil says. Thousands of kids are leaving school because educators are complying with the regulations on state accountability, she says. Administrators are trying to raise scores. If they don't, they lose their bonuses. Students are sometimes encouraged to leave, McNeil says, told that maybe it would be better if they took their GED later. Problem is, if you're a ninth grader you've got to wait a few years before you can take the GED, and what do you do with your life in the meantime? Or they're steered into "local" courses — TAKS prep — that don't count toward their graduation requirements.

Holding a student back one time means there's a 50 percent chance he won't graduate, McNeil says. Hold him back twice and that moves to 95 percent, she says.

The testing system also forces teachers out, McNeil and Sherrie Matula say. "We're killing the brand-new teachers," Matula says. If their students' test scores aren't good at the first benchmark and then don't improve enough, suddenly their probationary contract is not renewed, Matula says.

In the TSTA Advocate article entitled "Fixing a Badly Flawed System," Dr. Paul Henley with TSTA argues that "tests have now become the primary focus of public education rather than providing students a broad-based, quality education." Principals are no longer being hired based on leadership skills, but on whether they can get those test scores up, Henley says.

There are no rewards for retaining these kids other than moral and ethical ones.

The accountability study echoes this. Principals don't have tenure anymore; they don't have a collectively bargained contract. They get bonuses if test scores go up enough, nothing if they don't. Probably the only thing that keeps them from being replaced is the nationwide shortage of principals.

The problems with standardized testing and school accountability aren't, of course, just limited to Texas. The Texas report references other studies showing that, for instance, New York City's high schools may be pushing out low performers to increase the schools' overall scores. After Massachusetts began requiring a high school exit exam, not only did graduation rates drop but ninth-grade retention rates increased, as did the percentage of missing tenth graders.

The argument could be made that this is all to the good, that now a high school diploma means something once again. How then to explain the number of remedial courses being offered in colleges for graduates of Texas high schools who can't do collegiate-level work?

And as the study found, "increased frequency of testing...dulls students to the testing process and diminishes the seriousness with which they regard tests prior to the 11th grade exit test." Didn't we see that this year with the Fort Bend ISD offering freshmen and sophomores exemptions from some of their final exams if they did well on the TAKS in a desperate attempt to get these students to take the before-exit-level tests seriously?

Do we really want to continue with a graduation rate hovering around 50 percent­?

And rather than helping minorities by implementing these tests, the test scores are reported by racial subgroups, causing schools to identify these students as "potential liabilities," the study says.

Some school districts in other states are talking about opting out of NCLB. They'll give up federal funds, sure, but it may be worth it.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing