With the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind act and its Fall 2002 implementation, standardized tests now exist as the national means of assessing academic performance in schools. From California to Maine, Wisconsin to Alaska, all states are required to set standards within the core academic areas and then test their students in alignment with these standards. In schools with unsatisfactory scores, students may opt to attend other schools within the area; in schools with adequate scores, high-scoring students may receive award money. Given these outcomes, the standardized tests are not just for assessment purposes. More correctly, they operate as high-stakes mechanisms of punishment and reward, for schools that fail or succeed according to the standards set.
Those vocal on both sides of the debate contend that the high-stakes nature of these standardize tests lead teachers to teach only towards the tests. While opponents claim that teaching towards the test takes time away from other, more meaningful classroom activities, proponents chime in that teaching towards a test at least ensures that students learn core knowledge.
But these arguments are predicated on the idea that schools in need of improvement have adequate resources. The benefit of standardized test-taking on academic achievement becomes irrelevant when the problem is with the school environment itself. For the majority of failing schools it is poor facilities, under-prepared teachers and a lack of books that contribute to apathy and prevent achievement.
That such environments deter student achievement is evident. Take Jared M. Fleisher ’05, who attended an inner-city school in Los Angeles with shoddy facilities and under-prepared teachers. “The resources made it such that everybody was apathetic,” he said. “[The problem was] the physical environment of the school itself. It wasn’t an environment that anybody wanted to be in.” Just as the problem in Fleisher’s school does not stem from the inadequate testing or poor curriculum, neither do the solutions. Fleischer sensibly argues that before anybody starts talking about the specifics of the curriculum, the school needs to hire more and better teachers, and improve the resources available to them. “Getting kids enough books is just step one,” he said. And yet this situation is not unique. A study published in the School Library Journal found that for the 1997-1998 school year, the quality of libraries in California public schools was directly related to their location.
Proponents counter that the No Child Left Behind provision allows students to leave their failing schools. But often, failing schools are grouped together geographically, which prevents students from moving to successful schools as they are too far away. But even if a student can move to a local successful school, the number of students who can attend this school is limited. These problems impose substantial enough restrictions to invalidate the theoretical free-market efficiencies on which Bush based his education policy.
But despite the practical problems of changing schools, the very mechanism for judging their success is flawed. Schools are judged to be failing if their standardized test scores decrease year after year, but no attempt is made to compensate for changes in the student population or inevitable short-term variations. But even schools that improve their test scores substantially one year, ostensibly the goal of No Child Left Behind, may be penalized the next year if their scores do not improve substantially again.
In its present form, No Child Left Behind will do nothing to help children’s academic performance overcome their poor academic conditions. It uses testing as a quick fix solution to educational problems rooted in decades of under-funding and lack of resources. No test will ever be the right answer to this problem.
Jasmine J. Mahmoud ’04 is a government concentrator in Winthrop House. She is an associate editorial chair.