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More states seek school waivers from No Child Left Behind

An increasing number of states are leaving the No Child Left Behind education law behind them.

On Friday, July 6 the Obama administration granted a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to Washington and Wisconsin, bringing the number of states who have been freed from the law in the past 5 months to 26. Further waiver applications are pending for 10 other states as well as in the District of Columbia.

NCLB was proposed by the George W. Bush administration as a response to widespread public concern about the state of education and passed, with wide bipartisan support.

The law requires all federally-funded schools to administer a yearly statewide standardized test. The test results for campuses receiving Title 1 funding—money earmarked for schools with a high low-income population— must demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). This means, for example, that the fourth graders at a Title 1 school must perform better on the standardized test than the school’s fourth graders did the year before.

When a school misses AYP for the second time in a row, it is given the public status of being “in need of improvement.” Its administrators are asked to create a 2-year improvement plan to address the subject or subjects in which students are weakest.

If a school misses AYP for a third consecutive year, it must offer free tutoring and supplemental education services to struggling students. If a school has a fourth year without adequate improvement, it is designated as needing “corrective action,” which may entail changing the curriculum, upping the time students spend in class, or even replacing the school’s entire staff.

A fifth year of AYP deficit means that the entire school must be restructured. It may be closed or turned into a charter school, or its administration may be turned over to a private company or to the state’s office of education.

Supporters of NCLB say they like the increased accountability the law provides.

Critics say the law forces teachers to “teach to the test,” emphasizing rote memorization over complex thinking. Because the standards only cover math and reading, many say other subjects like art, science, and social studies are shunned in favor of core subject test preparation.

States that want a waiver from NCLB must propose other ways their schools will assess student improvement. The Obama administration has asked that the evaluations of teachers in waiver states be more closely connected to student test scores.

Washington’s waiver application said its schools would embrace new federal education standards and employ the state’s new teacher and principal evaluations. While Washington’s student assessment will still emphasize reading and math, testing will be extended to writing and science.

The federal government plans to look to the most creative and effective of waiver states’ assessment models when crafting future national standards.

Claremont’s view

California has not yet submitted a waiver application. Many educators and parents in the state, though, are chafing against the restrictions of NCLB.

The COURIER recently took time to speak to a couple of Claremont educators to get their view on the impact of the controversial legislation that has dominated American schools for more than a decade.  

Susan Warren is co-founder of Project Think, a summer academic enrichment program for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade held in the Old Schoolhouse in Claremont. She is also a professor at Azusa Pacific University and the director of the masters program in education there. Ms. Warren said she sees some value in NCLB.

“I really believe that the intent of the law—the idea that all children, regardless of their ethnicity or socio-economic status or language are all going to have the same high expectations for achievement—was wonderful,” she said. “Looking at students’ achievement growth by subgroups really helped us as a nation wake up to the fact that we weren’t serving all students.”

As a long-term measure, however, Ms. Warren feels NCLB has hampered teachers’ ability to cultivate critical thinking.

“We don’t want to produce children who are good at spitting back rote memorization, and who have mastered the skill of bubbling in an answer,” she said. “We want children to have a deeper understanding of the material and be able to apply it to something that would be authentic in the real world.”

Ms. Warren said she feels that both students and teachers are casualties of the “teaching to the test” mentality.

“I hear all the time from parents that their children aren’t excited about coming to school because school is very back-to- basics,” she said. “They’re not excited about going to school because it’s so mundane and dry and boring.”

Students in the lowest performing districts, where schools are in program improvement status, have it the hardest. Ms. Warren notes that PE, art, music, health, science and social studies are the first to go when a school’s focus is turned to test-assessable math and reading skills.

“There’s such a high emphasis on standardized testing and getting the scores up that they’ve taken away a lot of the subject areas that are so important in enriching the students’ educational experience,” she said.

Many classroom teachers find the situation heart-breaking.

“Teachers feel like they’re on these pacing plans. They have these benchmark tests they have to get to, they’re rushing through everything,” she said. “Instead of being able to meet individual kids’ needs, they’re leaving them behind.”

The current system of accountability is creating teacher burnout, Ms. Warren asserted. “Many teachers are feeling that the reason they went into education, to be able to make a difference—they can’t do it.”

Joe Tonan, a sixth grade teacher at Sumner Elementary School and the former faculty union president, argues that NCLB has been “bad policy.”

“It hasn’t been beneficial,” he said. “Though Claremont has been able to largely avoid the overemphasis on testing, it’s still taken away from learning.”

Mr. Tonan said he dislikes the way the emphasis has shifted in the past decade from subject mastery to test taking.

“If I know certain subjects are going to be on the state testing, I know that I need to put more time into those subjects, even if there might be other thing that are more important for a student’s best interest,” he explained. “I know we will incur penalties if test scores are not high enough, so it puts me in a bind between what’s best for students and what’s best for test scores.”

While more states are fleeing the dictates of NCLB, locally it remains a “difficult” situation.

“Testing in and of itself is not a bad thing—it’s a good thing,” Mr. Tonan said. “But this overemphasis on high-stakes testing is harmful to students.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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