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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Who Is Left Behind in the "No Child" Legislation?

The education of our youth is at risk with the No Child Left Behind Act. Though this statement is not a humorous proposition, let me begin this post with a little levity.

Anders Henriksson's Non Campus Mentis: World History According to College Students is a book compiling the funny, frightening and almost unbelievable responses the author/educator has gotten through the years on papers and exams.

Some of those include:
  • During the Dark Ages, it was mostly dark.
  • Hitler's instrumentality of terror was the Gespacho.
  • And the mother of Jesus was Mary, who was different from other women because of her immaculate contraption. 
In truth, the United States ranks twenty-eighth of forty countries in mathematics, right above Latvia, and graduates only about 75 percent of students, instead of the more than 95 percent now common elsewhere. (Linda Darling-Hammond, The Nation, May 2 2007) This disturbing information may be understood better when considering some current educational practice.

Test Scores

Randi Kaye, Anderson Cooper 360 reporter, stated that to avoid sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) schools across the country are lowering standards. NCLB was President George W. Bush's signature education reform mandating that every child in school must be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. The reform calls for schools that fall short to face sanctions.

Now, studies have shown that nearly a third of the states lowered academic standards in recent years. Fifteen states in all lowered proficiency standards in fourth and eighth-grade reading or math from 2005 to 2007. Three states – Maine, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – lowered standards in both subjects at both grade levels. On a positive note, though, the study found eight states actually raised their standards even though their funding was threatened.

Joan Indiana Rigdon of reported this book-cooking was due to NCLB-based fear. She said,"Afraid of having their schools tagged as failures, which could mean large-scale staff replacement, or being forced to cede a school to private management, many states have assured themselves of improved results by dumbing down their assessment tests or lowering the definition of a passing grade." Technically, that’s allowed, since NCLB requires students to be “proficient” but doesn’t say what that means. Benchmarks for proficiency vary from state to state.

Paul Basken ("Test Discrepancies,", July 5 2009) added that the Washington-based policy study group Education Sector, in a report in May, also described states as exaggerating their test results and other performance measures considered by No Child Left Behind, including graduation rates, teacher qualifications and school safety.

The many states that have dumbed tests down to increase proficiency rates created disparities that insure at least two-thirds of American children now attend schools with low expectations.(, October 10 2007)

Here is a chart from The Proficiency Illusion, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association, that uses data from schools in 26 states to demonstrate how different reading and math proficiency standards are from state to state. The following graph illustrates the "proficiency cut scores" students would need to pass the NCLB reading test in various states as determined by the Institute:

The median cut score for grade 8 reading is 36, but a surprising number of schools have standards that are far, far below that. The worst offenders are Colorado, Wisconsin, Delaware and Ohio. The only state with standards well above the median is South Carolina.
``Letting the states measure their own progress in student learning is like letting a soccer team's coach also play referee,'' said Petrilli, now vice president for policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education reform group, in Washington. (Paul Basken,, July 5 2009)

Ironically, states that set high standards risk having the most schools labeled "failing" under NCLB. Thus Minnesota, where eighth graders are first in the nation in mathematics and on a par with the top countries in the world, had 80 percent of schools on track to be labeled failing according to the federal rules. (Linda Darling-Hammond, The Nation, May 2 2007)

Basken said a study led by University of California education professor Bruce Fuller found the states reported that about 68 percent of their fourth-graders were proficient in reading, while the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress test put the figure at 31 percent. In math, the states found 65 percent proficient while NAEP found 30 percent.


Of course, lowering test standards has also led to lowering certain curriculum. University of Maryland, Associate Professor Linda Valli said that test-prep pressures have significantly changed teachers' instruction. They aren't spending as much time on higher-order thinking skills or assigning as many projects that require critical thinking, said Valli, who started tracking classroom instruction in 2000. (David J. Hoff, Education Week, January 18 2008)

A study by the University of Chicago lends credence to criticism of the NCLB by proving the law is benefiting only the kids in the middle, and not those on the high or low end of the achievement scale. In other words, the so-called 'No Child Left Behind' Act is leaving children behind:

Students Test Scores Since No Child Left Behind Act
Bottom 20% lost ground - test scores got worse
Middle test score improvement
Top 10% no change

Students considered to be on "middle ground" had significant test score gains, but those who were in the top ten percent saw no change. The bottom 20 percent of students, on the other hand, actually lost ground in most cases. In fact, these students did better in 1998 before the 'No Child Left Behind Act' was passed. (, July 18 2007)

Economist Derek A. Neal, who co-authored the study, concluded that teachers in the area surveyed are being forced to practice "education triage" and focus their attention on children who are in the middle, thus passing over those at the top or those deemed to have little chance of improvement.

George Allen of the Washington Times (July 28 2008) believes the problem of "dumbing down" will only get worse if the NCLB is not logically and promptly changed. By forcing bureaucratic federal determinations, the NCLB provides perverse incentives to states to set the lowest, most easily cleared standards to avoid sanctions.

 Causes of Dumbing Down

What is one of the main causes of dumbing down curriculum? Many parents are frantic because they see their children's failing grades on these tests. As a result, they complain to school boards that they don't want their children taking the tests or not graduating because of low test scores. In a ill-conceived effort to protect their children, many parents demand the dumbed-down tests to make sure their children graduate and go to college. (

Michele McInerney reported,"It was impossible to flunk a student if their parents didn't want them to repeat the grade," said a retired Missouri teacher who did not want to be identified. "And I'm talking about the grade school level. Even if the child did not have the skills to move up to the next level, if the parents threw a fit, the parents would win in the end. If that's not accepting lower standards, what is?" (Kansas City Business Journal, July 11 2003)

Alleged "teaching to the test" narrows the scope of subject matter. Paul Weyrich, founding president of the Heritage Foundation, contended that while schools are teaching to the test, they have lowered the standards for "proficiency" because so much of their funding relies upon good scores. Whether that means students are learning skills they will retain and use for life is a different matter altogether. (, November 15 2007)

Keep in mind the NCLB requires every school to show adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward the 2014 goal in every subgroup simultaneously. Thus, if one subgroup of 60 students fails to show AYP, then the entire school is labeled as "needing improvement," and NCLB-mandated sanctions go into effect, even if 80 percent of the students are learning and passing the exams.

George Allen cites this excellent example: "One of the subgroups is Limited English Proficiency (LEP), or non-native English-speaking students who are learning English. NCLB rules require students who are English beginners to take reading tests just like those taken by fluent English speakers, and many have not yet learned enough English to pass the test. Schools with increasingly diverse populations of LEP students...have failed to meet NCLB goals specifically because of this demographic. It just does not make any sense to fail an entire school because a few young students who are new to America have not yet learned English." (Washington Times, July 28 2008)


Many educational experts contend the NSLB law's focus on complicated tallies of multiple-choice-test scores has not only dumbed down the curriculum, but also fostered a "drill and kill" approach to teaching, and mistakenly labeled successful schools as failing. Some educators believe NSLB has driven teachers and middle-class students out of public schools and harmed special education students and English-language learners through inappropriate assessments and efforts to push out low-scoring students in order to boost scores. (Linda Darling-Hammond, The Nation, May 2 2007)

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