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D for Missing Assignments

by Paolo Martin 

The National Panel for Assessment and Educational Progress, which bills itself as the nation's "report card," recently released the results of its periodic assessment of a sampling of children's reading and math skills around the nation.  According to the report card, children seem to be doing significantly better in math and moderately better in reading.  However, the report card also shows that the achievement gaps between white children and their Black and Hispanic counterparts have changed very little.  The results of the assessment have prompted mixed reactions.  In a Newsweek article, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said, "Student achievement is on the rise....No Child Left Behind is working. It's doable, reasonable and necessary. Any efforts to weaken accountability would fly in the face of rising achievement."  President Bush has said in a statement, "These scores confirm that No Child Left Behind is working and producing positive results for students across the country."  Others are hesitant to say that the rise in achievement is significant, or indicative of the positive effects of government accountability standards as regulated by NCLB.  In a Los Angeles Times article, Bruce Fuller, a professor of educational policy at UC Berkeley, has called the improvement "lumpy"  - that only a few states around the nation showed significant improvement while most states' scores fell or stayed the same.  According to some experts, while the nation's report card shows gains, they are not enough to meet NCLB's requirement that all students reach proficiency in reading and math by 2013. 

It seems that the nation's report card, which was developed as a report card for children and schools, is now THE achievement test for No Child Left Behind.  In traditional classrooms, aren't report cards supposed to report progress to parents, guardians, and other people important in children's lives so they can find out how their kids are doing and help them better?  And don't these report cards balance quantitative grades with qualitative measures of "citizenship," "participation," "effort"?  The nation's report card says kids are generally doing better -- at least on tests.  But, honestly, HOW are they and their teachers really doing?  NAEP does not capture important qualifiers like motivation, classroom environment, and primary language, which affect students' learning and development as individuals.  One teacher on LiveJournal.com writes that as a result of NCLB,

School has become a highly stressful, robotic exercise for both teachers AND students. We are actually not teachers in the classic sense that we were. We are the program delivery component of systematized, scripted, canned lessons. We are now making widgets not educated, engaged children who will someday be expected to function successfully in an increasingly complicated world. When, for the first time in my career, kids were saying to me "I'm bored", "this is boring", " I don't like this" Why can't we learn about______? I knew it was time to go.

One teacher educator explains, "Any education reform which focuses primarily on a single multiple-choice test score can only hurt education by narrowing instruction, taking the heart out of the curriculum, driving the best teachers away....any reform that claims that all children will be on level by any year, and which continues to emphasize high stakes testing is, I believe, only going to hurt public education."  So, the issue is not only whether kids are doing better in reading and math, or whether the No Child Left Behind legislation is effective, but also how these high stakes tests and accountability efforts under NCLB really affect what goes on in the classroom, especially for historically marginalized children with rich linguistic and cultural backgrounds not valued by these assessments and report cards.  The national report card is well-intentioned in its attempt to measure national educational progress, but it misses the heart of what's really happening with our students and teachers.  For that, it gets a D for missing assignments.

Tags: NCLB, reading instruction, math instruction, reading assessment

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