×

Editorial: A Test That’s Failing in Vermont: No Child Left Behind



Sunday, August 17, 2014
Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe isn’t the first to complain about No Child Left Behind, and she won’t be the last. But she may be among the most articulate critics of the school accountability law. In an Aug. 6 letter to parents, she explains clearly and compellingly why this flawed federal program ill serves students, teachers, public schools and states such as Vermont that have refused to get out from under it. Anyone who wants to better understand the pitfalls and paradoxes of NCLB ought to read Holcombe’s statement, which has received national attention.

Testing and accountability were the watchwords of the day when Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001 and rebranded the law No Child Left Behind. The reforms, passed with bipartisan support, were well intentioned but poorly conceived, with rules that have frustrated states and school districts for more than a decade. From the get-go, educators complained that the policy, despite its commendable aim to raise U.S. achievement, punished schools by forcing teachers to focus narrowly on basic skills and on the results of standardized tests measuring “adequate yearly progress” in reading and math in grades 3 through 8. Schools that don’t meet the government’s definition of progress face corrective action, including the possibility of restructuring — or they risk the loss of federal Title I funding intended to help poor schoolchildren.

The Obama administration, recognizing NCLB’s many problems, allowed states to opt out of the law if they comply with other, equally prescriptive mandates. Forty-five states, including New Hampshire, have received federal waivers, in part to escape NCLB’s harsh evaluation system. Vermont, however, turned down a waiver because it didn’t want to trade one questionable fix for another, such as teacher evaluations based on student test scores.

Consequently, Vermont has been racing against the NCLB goals-setting clock. By 2013-2014, all students — yes, all students tested under the law — were expected to meet proficiency standards on state assessments (known in New England as the NECAPs). Any child who did not make the grade condemns an entire school as “low performing.” By this ridiculously rigid definition of “adequate yearly progress,” almost every Vermont public school now bears the stigma “low performing.” The same would be true for almost every school in the nation if most other states had stuck with the program.

As Vermont schools face possible sanctions associated with the label, Secretary Holcombe offers a refreshingly forthright critique of NCLB. The policy, she asserts, “has not helped our schools improve learning or narrow the gaps we see in our data between children living in poverty and children from more affluent families. We need a different approach that actually works.” Holcombe invites educators across the state to come together to innovate and to develop other ways to evaluate student learning and school effectiveness — something other than a failed federal classification system that grossly distorts reality. In the meantime, Holcombe reminds parents that by many measures both national and international, Vermont schools are performing well, though, of course, there’s ample room for improvement.

Schools cannot and should not be judged by the results of one standardized test. The goal set by Congress — to achieve 100 percent proficiency by this year — was utterly meaningless because it is utterly impossible to meet. Some students are not able to reach the expected benchmarks; some don’t speak English as a first language; some struggle with developmental and physical disabilities; and some are just not interested in demonstrating their best work on a test on a given day. The only way a school could pass the required proficiency tests would be to exclude those who would lower the averages — in short, to leave some children behind. This is the exasperating paradox of a law that Holcombe and many others rightly wish to see fixed or forgotten.