No Child Left Behind provides a distorted picture of school quality, writes Paul Peterson, editor-in-chief of Education Next.
Many good schools â€” both charter schools and inner-city public schools serving the disadvantaged â€” are not recognized as such, while many poorly performing schools are given a pass. If NCLB is to fulfill its mission, Congress needs to make some major repairs or risk seeing those opposed to all forms of school accountability assume control of the political battleground.
There’s evidence that test scores are rising more in states that were the first to put in accountability systems, Peterson writes. But NCLB sets goals that are too easy for schools that start with high-performing students and fail to measure progress in high-poverty schools that start with low-performing students.
He suggests tracking individual students’ progress and using an A to F scale, not pass-fail, to evaluate how well schools are helping students improve.
Peterson also wants to hold students and teachers accountable for progress.
At one time, student promotion to the next grade was conditional on performance, and graduation from high school depended on learning a specific body of material. Gradually, it has become standard practice to promote virtually all students from one grade to the next, regardless of whether they have learned the material. Such practices are justified on the grounds that holding a child back for poor performance only undermines self-esteem and aggravates learning problems. Minimal high-school graduation requirements are similarly justified on the grounds that having a diploma is better than not receiving one, regardless of what is learned.
Florida third graders’ performance jumped when they had to pass a test to be promoted, Peterson writes. “In Massachusetts, the expectation that students pass a 10th-grade test if they are to graduate from high school spiked student performance the first year the law was introduced, with continuing gains in subsequent years.”
Once it’s possible to track students’ progress, it will be possible to identify which teachers are more or less effective in helping students improve.
That information can be used to reward the high performers and to counsel the low performers, who should be dismissed if they remain consistently ineffective classroom teachers.
But don’t hold your breath on any of this. NCLB’s defects aren’t accidental, Peterson writes. They’re the result of political tradeoffs. Change requires goring the oxen of unions, parents, state politicians, suburban districts and more.
In Teachers Magazine, a charter school teacher from St. Louis wants her school to get credit for improving low-income, black students’ performance — but not enough to meet proficiency goals.