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updated: 10/31/2010 9:22 PM

Clock running out on No Child Left Behind?

Hard to say what will become of evaluation system

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The clock may be running out on No Child Left Behind, and educators already have started to develop new measures that eventually could replace the much-maligned school evaluation system.

According to those developing new systems, the testing processes wouldn't be as black and white as with NCLB. Rather than offering a strict pass/fail, they would chart progress. And signs of progress are something educators are crying out for.

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Because of rising standards, for the first time since NCLB was begun in 2002, more Illinois schools are failing to meet standards than not.

Congress may vote to reauthorize the law next year, and President Obama's administration has deemed renewing NCLB, part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a priority.

The original legislation was enacted in 1965 but periodically revised about every five years. The latest form of the law, which introduced NCLB, was authorized in 2001.

The law likely will see minor tweaks when Congress takes action, as radical changes, such as eliminating the adequate yearly progress standard, are unlikely, according to a proposal set forth by the Obama administration in March.

NCLB also could stay the same, but that decision hinges largely on whom voters elect Tuesday.

When introduced, lawmakers said their intent was to end NCLB in 2014.

Adopted under President George W. Bush, most Republicans laud the policy, saying it forces schools to improve or face sanctions. Many Democrats feel the measurements aren't accurate and carry biases.

So the future of NCLB is very much up in the air.

"What's nerve-racking is we don't really know," said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a bipartisan educational advocacy group from Chicago. "Do I know if there's a big Republican tide and push? I'm not sure which tide will push back."

Educators optimistic

Many educators frustrated with No Child Left Behind are excited about the chance to rewrite the standards to better reflect students' year-to-year progress instead of branding a school as a failure even though improvement has been made.

Earlier this year, the federal government awarded $170 million to a group consisting of 26 states, with Illinois designated as a governing member. That group, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, will develop a new evaluation system, with the goal of having the system in place by the 2014-15 school year.

The partnership will follow federally established criteria when developing the system. Illinois State School Superintendent Christopher Koch said he's not worried the new evaluations will have the same effects as NCLB, with educators still frustrated the measurements don't reflect any progress inside classrooms. But again, what happens with the measurements depends on the actions of Congress.

"It's something that we need to think about," Koch said.

No Child Left Behind requires all students, no matter their background, to meet academic requirements set by the federal government by 2014. This year, 77.5 percent of students need to achieve adequate yearly progress, and the percentage will increase until it reaches 100 percent in 2014.

The standard breaks down students in a number of subgroups, including race and those enrolled in special education curriculum. Those scores are delineated on the state report card.

Federal lawmakers may do away with adequate yearly progress or even readjust its focus, concentrating only on the poorest-performing schools.

"Who knows where that's going to end up by the time Congress is done with it," said Michael Cohen, who heads Achieve, a Washington-based bipartisan nonprofit organization charged with overseeing the partnership's standards.

While educators applaud the intent of No Child Left Behind, they've grown frustrated with the evaluation system, which seemingly punishes schools with high populations of students who traditionally score poorly on tests. Those groups include students for whom English isn't a first language.

"It's just a ridiculous way to look at what kids know and can do," said Illinois Federation of Teachers President Daniel Montgomery. He said NCLB leaves teachers responsible for the results but without any authority in crafting the standards.

School officials have said the current evaluations ignore growth. Some educators said the state report card leaves them numb, resigned to the fact that their school will be branded as a failure.

Alternate systems

As a result of the growing list of failing schools, some have decided to come up with alternate measures.

Schaumburg Township District 54 officials, whose schools received a passing grade in this year's state report cards, tout the use of Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP.

Advance Illinois' Steans noted Chicago Public Schools' use of the Score Card, which is a brief rundown of graduation rates and other statistics left unmentioned in the state's measurements.

Achieve's Cohen wants an "honest, accurate measure of how well each student is doing." The new measurements will allow for better comparisons of schools from different states, which now use different types of exams.

Establishing uniform statistical measures across the country is another of the goals of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The shift has already started, as many states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which creates shared standards in the language arts and math.

Beside that partnership, another consortium is developing its own measurement system.

Illinois isn't part of the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, which would use exams in which the next question depends on a student's previous answer. There are 31 states in SMARTER, and some states are members of both groups. The federal government has awarded $160 million to SMARTER.

Both tests would administer the tests on a computer. That's ambitious, considering some schools aren't equipped with computer labs.

Both groups' plans have to meet federal requirements. Despite the efforts to replace NCLB and develop new standards, there is no guarantee the federal government will use either consortium's plans, even with $330 million of federal funds being spent.

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