Wednesday, November 28, 2007

And This Is Why No Child Left Behind Is Such A Crock

When it comes to No Child Left Behind, states have learned to "game the system". And when high stakes money in the millions of dollars are at stake, why am I not surprised?

In a story by Pauline Vu, Staff Writer, we read the following:
On paper, Alabama last year showed remarkable gains in improving its schools. But a new report claims that Alabama – and a number of states – are manipulating statistics to make their schools appear better than they really are.

The report released Tuesday (Nov. 13) by Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., contends states are gaming the system under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the 2002 law that measures states’ annual progress toward getting all students reading and doing math at grade level by 2014.

In a ranking based on 11 statistics that states annually report to the U.S. Education Department, Alabama jumped to 5th place in the country in how well it appears to be meeting various education measures, up from 22nd place last year, the group found. The percentage of its schools showing the amount of improvement required by federal law zoomed in one year from half to almost 90 percent, according to the report.

“This didn’t happen because Alabama students learned much more in 2006 than they did in 2005,” the report said. It happened because the state exploited loopholes in the law and set low standards for its statewide test so that more students passed those tests, inflating the state’s record in meeting the law’s benchmarks, according to the report.

“Many states did exactly the same thing,” said the group, which contends Congress needs to close these loopholes when lawmakers rewrite NCLB this year or next.
Close the loopholes? Yeah, and like the states won't find other ways to take the money and run. Statistics will still be manipulated and test standards will just be lowered. You see that is what happens when money and not the results are the motivators. It is also what happens when the federal government goes meddling in something that they really have no power within the Constitution to be micro-managing.

Ah, but you say, we have to do something to raise standards. Well, maybe it is high time taxpayers demand results locally of their schools instead of doling out money automatically as a result of binding arbitration on teacher contracts and succumbing to union demands. Perhaps we need to end social promotion and set some real standards to achievement in our schools. Maybe we just need to put an end to programs that are a waste of time and money. Every school should undergo a forensic evaluation of their budgets and the programs that are being funded. Additionally, if school systems weren't burdened with state and federal unfunded mandates then perhaps they could use their money where they see fit instead of spending it on stuff they may not need or want. Come to think of it, as a homeschooling parent I am thankful that I don't have the state and federal government telling me to do and what I have to teach and how much money I have to spend to educate my kids. We've done quite well without that oversight, and so have hundreds of thousands of other parents nationwide. Too bad local government schools don't have that kind of freedom.

But I digress, so back to the story, because gaming the system can be a very interesting topic. later on in this story it says:
The report went on to highlight Iowa and Wisconsin as states that perceive their educational systems are doing well, even though report author Kevin Carey contends that Wisconsin also has manipulated the numbers to present the state as doing better than it really is.
“Wisconsin, for the past two years, has adopted every means of not holding schools accountable for No Child Left Behind,” Carey said.

The report, "The Evidence Suggests Otherwise”, creates an index based on 11 data measures that states submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, such as high school graduation rates, high school dropout rates, number of violent schools, and the percentage of students, schools and districts performing well under NCLB.

Iowa and Wisconsin tied for first in this year’s index, similar to their ranking in last year’s index.

Alabama stood out as the state that appeared to make the biggest improvement. But the report detailed some ways over the past five years that the state inflated its progress, such as limiting the number of test scores used to chart progress in closing the achievement gap between minority and white students. Alabama chose to single out test results for a subgroup only if a school had 40 or more students in that group. In the 2002-03 school year, the year states chose where to set their minimum subgroup size, 80 percent of Alabama’s schools had Latino students, but only 8.7 percent of schools reported test results for Latino students as a group.

The higher a minimum subgroup size, the more minority and disabled students are excluded. More than half the states set subgroup cutoffs lower than 40 so they can include higher percentages of those scores, while 11 states chose to share Alabama’s strategy of counting scores of minority and disabled students only in schools with 40 or more such students. Seven states set even higher cutoffs.

Alabama’s neighbor Tennessee pioneered another loophole. Originally under NCLB, states averaged test results across multiple grades in a school district to determine whether districts made a target, or whether they would be labeled “in need of improvement” for missing it.

But in 2003-04, Tennessee received permission from the U.S. Department of Education to set a lower standard: the state would not have to label a district as in need of improvement as long as the district made its target in at least one subject in just one of the three grade-spans: elementary, middle or high school.

In the next two years, 28 states including Alabama followed Tennessee’s example. This helped Alabama go from having no districts making annual progress one year to having 63 percent of districts make progress the next.
Well, other tactics are mentioned in this piece, but you get the picture. Here's a great report entitled, "How States Inflate Their Educational Progress Under NCLB", by Kevin Carey. Its a good read and here is an excerpt:
In truth, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) gives states wide discretion to define what students must learn, how that knowledge should be tested, and what test scores constitute “proficiency”—the key elements of any educational accountability system. States also set standards for high school graduation rates, teacher qualifications, school safety and many other aspects of school performance. As a result, states are largely free to define the terms of their own educational success.

Unfortunately, many states have taken advantage of this autonomy to make their educational performance look much better than it really is. In March 2006, they submitted the latest in a series of annual reports to the U.S. Department of Education detailing their progress under NCLB. The reports covered topics ranging from student proficiency and school violence to school district performance and teacher credentials. For every measure, the pattern was the same: a significant number of states used their standard-setting flexibility to inflate the progress that their schools are making and thus minimize the number of schools facing scrutiny under the law.
Another good study on this is also by Kevin Carey,
The Pangloss Index: How States Game the No Child Left Behind Act But you know, the states are not all to blame here. Just look at what happened in CT:

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told our past education commissioner Betty Sternberg to dumb down CT tests so we could do more testing more cheaply, especially when CT started to squawk about not being given enough money to do the required amount of testing. Sternberg refused and wanted the dough to pay for the way CT already does testing - that's what the CT lawsuit was all about.
Connecticut filed suit against the federal Department of Education, contending that federal officials had failed to pay the cost of all the tests required by No Child Left Behind. While the suit got much news media play, many of the underlying testing issues were missed.

Connecticut wants to maintain its state tests, which feature many essay questions and problems that require students to explain their work. The state maintains that to administer these tests every year from third to eighth grade, as the federal law requires, will cost $8 million more than federal financing provides.

In a May 3, 2005, letter, the federal education secretary, Margaret Spellings, said that while Connecticut's tests "are instructionally sound, they go beyond what was contemplated by N.C.L.B." Federal officials suggested that Connecticut switch to multiple-choice tests and eliminate writing tests to cut costs.

For many, the Connecticut lawsuit is a pivotal moment. Will the law's testing demands raise national education standards or lower them?
So really NCLB is really helping to lower standards not raise them. States are either gaming the system for the money - or made to dumb down tests in order to cut corners on the cost of test administration.

Looks to me like the only ones losing out are the kids.


Heather_in_WI said...

Don't get me started on this!

While I truly believe that the federal government has no place in education, it is a shame what is happening here in Wisconsin. I have written letter after letter .... to local politician, journalists, state politicians, and community leaders. I have blogged a lot about it, too.

The state of education here is why we started homeschooling in the first place.

christinemm said...

You have to admit that the concept of having some sort of standards in education seems to be common sense. And it makes sense as well to not keep dumping money into broken systems.

However I don't think that schools will close or that major changes will happen like more magnet schools or teaching with 'alternative education' methods will occur.

Instead they manipulate the system in order to keep doing business as they want.

In my town many hours are spent in public school 'teaching to the test' and taking practice tests. Students in my town do well but at what cost?

A friend said they took science out of 2nd grade to make time for CMT testing practice (Connecticut Mastery Test). Also social studies was decreased to make room for more time teaching the three R's. I mean, by April a parent told me all they learned was a little of Native Americans and pilgrims at Thanskgiving, learned the history of the STatue of Liberty and did Black History month--period---for 'social studies' in Grade Three. That is a pretty weak history and socical studies program is it not?

So if schools are not cheating they are gaming the system by practicing a ton or teaching to the test.

I thought the idea was to teach as normal then give them the test and see if they actually learned it. Period. But that is not what they are doing.

Also some parents also told me they were asked to keep their child out sick on testing days so they would not lower the score.

It seems so wrong, all this mess.

Yet I can't disagree that to expect children to actually learn things in school is not asking too much!

Matt Johnston said...

Admitting the fact that the Federal govnernment has no constitutionally legitimate role in education, we have to accept that they have one via the back door of the spending clause.

But NCLB needs to be turned on its head. Instead of the states setting the standards and the federal government enforcing sanctions, the better regime would be for the federal government to set the standards (same standards apply nationwide) and collect the data they currently collect on all students (yes all of them not just a select group) The states would then enforce sanctions.

I would also like to see the Feds get out of the business of funding Title I, particularly since the funding mechanism is viciously skewed against districts that spend the least on all students. Title I encourages and incentives more spending on education with very little to show for the money. Of course, right now that is a pipe dream, but it can become a reality.