Progress, accountability are needed from students

Suppose you show up for a track meet at your local high school to watch your daughter perform. She’s in the high jump competition and she clears the bar, which is set at 6 feet. None of the other competitors can clear the height, but the competition’s organizers decide to allow individuals to submit testimonials from their coaches that they had cleared the height sometime during practice. Not the best method of judging performance, eh?

Proposals to make No Child Left Behind more flexible, by Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education Committee, would work the same way as our hypothetical high jump contest. Miller, an original architect of NCLB, told members of the National Press Club that NCLB should be changed because he believes the current law is neither fair nor flexible.

He’s right about the law. But for the same reason we don’t use flexible high bars that will bend low to artificially assure success in the high jump, we must insist that we not bend our academic standards to make it appear that our students are succeeding when they aren’t. The problem with Miller’s criticism of NCLB is that he panders to schools and teachers’ unions’ notions of fairness and forgets that the standards are set in place to help and measure students. NCLB should not be about flexibility and fairness for schools and teachers but about progress and accountability by and for students.

NCLB passed Congress with broad bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bush in 2002. The law is due to be reauthorized this year. Under NCLB, students in grades 3-8 are tested annually in reading and math; students are tested once in high school. Miller said states should be “allowed to develop better tests that more accurately measure what all students have learned.”

We don’t need better tests. We need better students performing better on the tests we have now.

Miller told members of the press that NCLB had brought some positive changes, citing a Center on Education Policy report released in June that found gains in students’ reading and math scores and a narrowing of achievement gaps among various ethnicities. Miller also said the decision six years ago “to raise our expectations of what America’s schools and schoolchildren could achieve” was a bold one. That decision was to “insist upon high standards,” largely because we were operating under a policy of “acceptable losses” in which half of our minority children couldn’t read proficiently and where black and Hispanic children who managed to graduate from high school had math skills equivalent to white eighth-graders. We must not abandon or water down those standards now.

In addition to providing tests, Miller suggests that schools should be able to use additional accountability measures, such as school graduation rates, to prove that schools and their students are successful. But graduation rates can be manipulated by schools that inflate grades and set low standards. Graduation rates reveal nothing about whether schools are producing educated students.

Miller’s legislation would also ease requirements for English language learners and students with disabilities. Those suggestions are tantamount to providing boosts for special populations, but miss the point that those students will then graduate with insufficient skills to compete in society.

Miller’s belief that we need “multiple measures of success” that “can no longer reflect just basic skills and memorization” reveals a lack of understanding of educational pedagogy. Learning proceeds hierarchically. Learning at the highest levels depends upon students having attained prerequisite knowledge and skills at lower levels. Students who can’t master basic skills will be unable to develop “critical thinking skills and the ability to apply knowledge to new and challenging contexts.”

In his insistence that we need to spend more money to adequately fund NCLB, Miller is certainly right. We should put the money into working with our students to meet the standards already in place for them, however, not into creating a fun house of mirrors that will allow students to skirt those standards.

Patrick Mattimore teaches AP psychology at a college preparatory high school in San Francisco and is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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