I am sitting in a room with three children. These children are 17 years old. One does not speak English, and when we give her a Gujarati dictionary, she does not seem to know how to hold it, but she smiles pleasantly and looks at her test book studiously as I read her the test questions. Another spends over half an hour painfully struggling to read a one and a half page story in order to answer questions on it. She slides her finger under the words, and frequently looks up in frustration. I nod at her encouragingly and she returns to work. The third is finished in under 15 minutes but he does not appear to have actually read a single one of the questions. Every one of these children is classified with a specific learning disability (and in the case of the first, also as an English language learner). Every one of these children must pass the rigorous three day state test that I am currently proctoring. Otherwise, it means we’ve left them behind.
A brief primer in No Child Left Behind. NCLB was the education plan on which Bush campaigned in 2000. It was based upon the success of a similar plan in Texas, affectionately known as the “Houston Miracle” – which by the way NEVER HAPPENED (for more information see this article). NCLB was the first piece of domestic legislation passed after 9/11, and it was passed with bipartisan support because it sounded so appealing.
While there are certainly many admirable provisions in this law (most of which were never funded, but that’s a cry for another day), the most notable provision is the testing provision. By the year 2015, every child is to be passing a state level test at every grade level. There are gradual benchmarks set up for each year that passes. Currently, schools must maintain pass rates of 85%. That may not sound difficult. However, the schools are required to reach that benchmark in ever subgroup. Subgroups include, but are not limited to: children with disabilities, English language learners, and students with low SES. This means that 85% of ESL students must pass the state tests. 85% of special ed students must pass the state tests.
Now I am not a special educator, nor do I teach ESL. And as I look around the room at this group of students, there is not one of the three of them who I would be willing to leave behind. But as I watch them struggle through this test which is entirely beyond their cognitive capacity, I have to ask myself how this test can possibly be keeping them on track.
The very name “No Child Left Behind” is an artifact of the spin upon which this law was based. Born out of Rod Paige’s own lies and deceit, this law purports to help children by increasing accountability. The underlying assumption is that teachers, by default, are doing something wrong. Personally I find this insulting. More significant than my personal reaction, though, is the inherent lack of logic in this argument. Even if teachers are doing something wrong, increasing the accountability of teachers can only be done by observing, assessing, and educating teachers, not by testing children. How can a child’s test scores accurately assess a teacher’s performance when there are so many other variables which affect the test score? And this assumption that positive results on a three day test once a year will somehow prove that children are being better served is absurd. Good teaching involves working with students to meet their individual needs, based on their goals and abilities. Good teaching is not one size fits all.
This is not a measure designed to help children. This is a measure designed to punish teachers, to punish schools, and ultimately it will punish children. This is a law designed to label schools as “failing” when they are unable to achieve the stated goal with the available resources. Logic would indicate that such schools need more resources. The law would give them less.
The children in the library with me, like all children, deserve more than more tests. They deserve functional career education, character development, civics education, divergent thinking, socialization. The project of public education is developing an educated citizenry, helping to build a population responsible for its own democracy.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid, these days that is what’s being left behind.