No Child Left Behind?

Some educators think new federal testing standards are undermining public schools in Arizona.

The name sounds like a slogan for the liberal experiment that took root in American classrooms in the 1970s. But No Child Left Behind is actually the current federal education initiative that some educators see as a threat to destroy the nation's public school system.

Decades ago, many educators embraced the idea that every child was equally gifted and able to learn, and saw teaching as being about relationships as well as knowledge. Public schools were seen as beakers in which the great alchemy of democracy took place.

The federal government's new educational effort, No Child Left Behind, is a sweeping reform policy championed by President George W. Bush and signed into law last year. Based on a much-touted program in Texas whose results are now being seriously questioned, the law is in large part about holding schools accountable through high-stakes standardized testing.

In philosophy, NCLB is patterned after the Total Quality Management business practices of corporations seeking to make their companies more competitive by increasing worker efficiency. Critics complain the approach treats children as cogs in a machine.

The program places extensive testing and accountability requirements on students, teachers and school administrators, says John Petticone, superintendent of the Flowing Wells School District.

"I am all for accountability, but if you wanted to design a way to make it hard for public schools, you couldn't do better than NCLB," Petticone says. "You have to wonder if it is not intended to dismantle public schools, as it offers no way to fix the problems which are exposed. There is not a single policy intention stated in this law that shows the vision that is driving it."

NOT ALL administrators share Petticone's view. Stan Paz, superintendent of Tucson Unified School District, says the federal law gives schools a sense of accountability and sets higher standards.

"This is not a punishment for schools or teachers, but a wake-up call," he says. "If we all work together, we can succeed."

Rick Lesko, superintendent of the Marana School District, says he favors "legitimate standards," but complains that the number of tests that kids have to take keeps growing.

"The point of testing should not to be to create a bell-shaped curve reflecting how students size up nationally," he says. "Testing should encourage everyone to get better."

Because every school district is mandated to enforce NCLB, students, teachers, schools and districts will be measured through periodic testing and ranked against a statewide standard. That makes NCLB--by far--the deepest the federal government has ever involved itself in the underpinnings of the public education system in America.

The law's standards and punitive measures apply only to public schools; private schools are exempt. Some specific highlights:

· All schools which currently receive federal Title One funding for the poorest and most needy students will need to show improving status by 2005 or face closure, transfer to state control or privatization.

· All teacher's aides, despite their low wages, must obtain an associate arts degree or face termination.

· No certified teacher in middle school or high school, including special-ed teachers, shall be allowed to teach a class outside of his or her major.

· Even though schools considered non-improving all face additional mandates, only those which receive Title One funds will receive new monies, and then only for a limited time.

· All branches of the military have unlimited access to the names and addresses of high school students.

· States will develop an overall standard to evaluate the performance of all students in public schools. The high-stakes tests used to do this will be given annually, and will start in the second grade.

· Based primarily on the results of these tests, schools will receive an accountability label.

Kevin Vinson, assistant professor with the UA's teaching and teacher education department, disagrees with the approach of NCLB.

"Labeling is bad because it devalues the hard work put in, and the implication in a negative label is that students and teachers are not doing a good job," he says.

Vinson also disputes the testing basis of NCLB. "High-stakes tests try to simplify things, and education is too complex to use them to label a school as failing," he says, proposing an alternative for grading a school's performance. "Teams of teachers and community representatives could look at several indicators such as reviewing student work, observing teachers, getting input from teachers and districts, and recognizing (that) many kinds of education can be good."

But as young people in the metropolitan Tucson area now head back to school, educators officials across the community are discovering that the new federal requirements have put their funding and accreditation on the line. Arizona, like every other state, has had to develop accountability measurement standards, which some local school superintendents think have been set too high.

FROM THE STANDPOINT OF the general public, who can argue against the notion that all children should learn what will help them succeed before they graduate from school? What is wrong with holding schools accountable for educating students?

But in education circles, NCLB is hotly debated. Some in the profession ask: Through regular testing, should schools be the only public institutions held statistically accountable for performance? Do we really want to reward thinking that conforms to a standardized test when the complex problems of the world require creative solutions?

Another complaint about NCLB is that it discounts ethnic and economic differences in students, even though research has shown these factors to be critical. According to the Arizona Department of Education, "It is not appropriate to set different educational standards for students who may differ by socio-economic background. All students arrive with a capacity to learn. Arizona would be remiss to create separate expectations of achievement for students of varied income or ethnicity."

Nonetheless, test results suggest that poverty does make a difference. When the first round of test evaluations and school accounting were reported last October, most of Tucson's "underperforming" schools were located in areas with the highest poverty and its accompanying social problems.

Vinson says the high-stakes tests favor richer, native English-speaking students. "The tests don't take diversity seriously, but correlate (results) with wealth and English proficiency," he says.

Vinson adds that the federal law discourages teachers from expanding their curriculum beyond matters covered on the test.

"Some teachers don't mind NCLB, but many others indicate it encourages them to spend too much time on math and reading, since that is what is tested, and not enough on science, social studies, art and music," he says.

Petticone has a somewhat different perspective.

"I support assertive testing, but the problem is whether or not we're measuring the right thing," he says. "Does the test really measure the information that young men and women will need to succeed in the economy and to be good citizens? Is it possible to educate every kid to the same level? Today's concept is we'll educate all kids and we'll test all kids. There are special-ed kids that we have no business testing. What is important is to show that our kids have improved."

IN AN EFFORT TO DO that while meeting the federal school labeling requirements of No Child Left Behind, the state has adopted a program dubbed Arizona Learns. These accountability standards grew out of Prop 200, the 2000 ballot proposition that increased the state sales tax six-tenths of a cent to provide additional education funding.

Under the program, based in part on individual results on the AIMS test along with the Stanford 9 test for elementary students, all public schools will be listed annually in one of four categories: excelling, improving, maintaining performance or underperforming.

For now, Tucson has only one "excelling" school, TUSD's University High, where 90 percent of the students exceeded state standards on the AIMS test. "Improving" schools are those that surpassed academic expectations, while schools labeled as "maintaining" met their educational goals. According to the State Department of Education, "underperforming" schools did not make adequate progress.

Art DeFilippo, the new principal at TUSD's Davidson Elementary, says he believes in the system, even though the school received an "underperforming" label.

"It's good to have labels to help consumers, in this case the consumer being students, parents, teachers and the public," DeFilippo says. But he would like to see changes in which children take the tests and when they are administered.

Arizona Learns uses some of the highest accountability standards in the country, while the state's per-pupil spending remains at the bottom of the U.S. barrel.

"It is working at cross purposes for Arizona to have some of the lowest per pupil funding in the country and some of the highest student achievement standards," says Paz. "The leaders who set those standards were hoping the kids would fail and flee to charter schools."

Paz's counterpart at Flowing Wells says funding is a problem.

"NCLB is about standards and penalties, but there is no funding," says Petticone. "The state has failed to provide any money for teacher development that helps teach more effectively and efficiently."

Paz says some money is available, but not enough.

"It is a partially funded mandate," he says. "It should be fully funded. Now that we have identified where children are lacking, those schools have developed plans for improving. They have received extra funds this year, around $4 million of new Title One monies. These will go for teacher training, collaboration, professional development, intervention and tutorial help."

But this additional funding may only be temporary. There is no guarantee of its continuation in the future.

Lesko says the unfunded mandates are a problem for the Marana School District.

"We are, for example, required to phase in foreign language one grade level at a time, but there is no money for this," he says. "Getting highly qualified teachers is also going to be harder without any additional funding. We are requiring teacher's aides to get associates degrees, but they continue to make the same low $7 per hour."

TUSD governing board member Judy Burns thinks additional funding is key to really improving educational achievement. Burns believes it should be increased substantially in the state to approach the national median spent per student. More money would allow for smaller class sizes, so teachers could focus on the individual needs of a child.

In cash-strapped, education-challenged Arizona, that isn't likely to happen, according to state Rep. Phil Lopes, a Democrat who represents District 27.

"There won't be an increase in education funding in this political and economic climate unless it goes on the ballot, is tightly written and then approved by the voters," he says.

Despite that, public schools will still be labeled, with "underperforming" ones facing an uncertain future. Lorena Escarcega, who for the past seven years has served as principal of Drexel Elementary in the Sunnyside School District, understands the state labeling system and appreciates the need for educational accountability. Her school was recently labeled "underperforming."

"We're trying our best and have fantastic teachers," Escarcega says. "They were very positive (after the rating was released) that we needed to move forward, knowing the test scores don't reflect the effort put in nor what the students know."

DeFilippo concurs. To help students, he says the school's teachers set up tutoring lessons, and the result is more focus on better methods and strategies of teaching. But teachers are working very long hours to accomplish their goals. Some educators believe that situation, combined with the lack of extra pay for the extra hours, may eventually drive many teachers out of the profession.

Even though Arizona Learns ignores income and ethnicity in determining a school's rating, it does consider the length of time a student has been attending the school when evaluating performance. Educators consistently point out that the test scores for students who frequently move, often due to the low-income status of their family, are a real challenge for schools being labeled by the state. The law which created "Arizona Learns" addressed that mobility issue, requiring that only students who have attended a school "for at least one academic year" be included in the calculations.

At the same time, the overall standard for determining school labels is changing. As of a few weeks ago, the state's Board of Education had yet to finalize the criteria for this year's classifications, even though they will be released on Oct. 15.

This isn't the first time the educational standards which schools are supposed to meet have been confusing. As Petticone recalls, a few years ago the state "submitted benchmark test scores to the federal government to begin the compliance procedures.

These were random measurements that triggered "performing" or "underperforming" status. Our district was never able to find out what the data was so that we could know what our two underperforming schools needed to work on. The point is, how do you improve if you don't know what the standards are?"

Petticone has other concerns about both No Child Left Behind and Arizona Learns, especially in light of the a recent ballot proposition that severely curtailed bilingual education.

"Because of Prop 203, we are prevented from testing any kid except in English," he says. "By state law, they have one year to learn English. If a child comes to us speaking only Spanish in September, we must test them in English in February. In Arizona, schools have a quadruple whammy: we have NCLB; we have Prop 203; we have some of the highest state standards and also the lowest per-pupil spending."

Lesko sees the same problems in the Marana School District.

"Taking away the ability to test students in Spanish does not seem purposeful," he says "The Arizona exit exam is one of the most difficult in the nation. Other states, such as Texas, have much easier tests. Their students, therefore, come across looking more successful than Arizona students."

Paz also mentions Texas, but in another context.

"Some states came up with standards that were attainable by creating accountability and putting in enough money early on, before the actual NCLB law was enacted," he says. "For example, in Texas in the 1980s, they lowered class size. Then under Gov. Ann Richardson, the state put additional money into teachers' hands for professional investment. This investment in the system is very important."

WITH A LOT OF extra requirements but not much additional money, those 26 local public schools that last October received an "underperforming" classification (out of a total of 178) face the next round of labeling with some trepidation. While most of them did show improvement is the Stanford 9 test scores released last month, they can't rest easy.

After being labeled as "underperforming" each of these schools was required to develop a plan to improve the situation and to notify people within their attendance zone of what they were doing. If they receive the same classification again this year, under state law, several things might happen.

First, they could be called "failing" under No Child Left Behind, but that designation may be put on hold for another year by the state Board of Education. Second, a "Solutions Team" comprised of people with experience dealing successfully with similar situations will be appointed to work with the school staff to make improvements.

Students attending the "underperforming" school can also opt to enroll in a tutoring program which guarantees academic advancement, with the cost of instruction covered by the state.

Finally, if the school is classified as "failing" for two consecutive years, the Arizona Board of Education will determine whether operation of the school should be turned over to another governmental, nonprofit or private organization. Thus, the label of "underperforming" can eventually lead to loss of local control.

Burns, who was elected to the TUSD board in 2000, calls the idea of possible state takeover of "underperforming" schools an "empty threat."

"I don't know what they could do," she says. "How can they do better with the same amount of money?"

While state takeover of public schools may not be realistic, or politically viable, the "underperforming" label has had an impact outside the school yard. Matt Perri, president of the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association, indicates people in his area are concerned about their local school's performance. Some of them volunteered to help tutor students, he says, while others are pointing fingers of blame for the problem. Perri says he blossomed while attending Menlo Park in the 1950s.

"I can't challenge the label, but it should inspire people to change it," he says.

That's the same attitude of Alice Farley, principal of Nash Elementary in the Amphitheater School District. When the school was designated as "maintaining" last year, Farley says there was a collective sign of relief.

"We decided to make some changes because we felt 'maintaining' wasn't where we wanted to be," she says. "We wanted to be better than that."

Farley thinks the labels are a positive because they help to raise a school's standards of achievement.

"We want to have scores that reflect the abilities of the children," she says.

That undoubtedly is the opinion of educators across Tucson, but the No Child Left Behind slogan implies that public education has in fact been leaving a lot of children behind. As Karolyn Williams, a teacher at Pueblo Gardens Elementary School with 11 years of experience, puts it: "What teacher wants to leave a child behind? That is not how it works. I look and ask: Am I seeing progress? Is each student developing in his or her way as best they can?

"Anyone who has ever raised children knows that they don't develop in the same way," says Williams. "And why should they? You don't unscrew the lid, stuff things in and close it up. Everyday, you do your best and love what you do. I do whatever I have to do to ensure that my kids are getting a sure foundation, until I hear them say, 'I see that. I hear that. I can do that. I can move on.'"

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