Monday, January 08, 2007

No Child Left Behind Turns Five

President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law five years ago today. One of the few truly bipartisan laws to pass Congress over the past few years, NCLB aimed to raise the achievement levels of poor and minority children while improving school accountability, giving parents choices and throwing federal weight behind proven education methods. USA Today has a thorough round-up of how the law has affected schools, teachers and kids here.

The centerpiece of the law is annual testing of all children. Parents of gifted kids have complained that the focus on testing (and keeping gifted kids' test scores in a certain grade to boost averages) has reduced support for gifted education, and has taken time away from the more accelerated material gifted kids are ready for. Standardized grade level tests -- which most gifted kids can ace without trying -- also tell nothing about whether individual gifted children are learning to the extent of their abilities.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has started talking a good game about making sure No Child Left Behind doesn't also mean No Child Let Ahead. When she spoke at the opening of the Davidson Academy in Reno this summer, she said the law should do more to encourage high achievers (of course, like all politicians, Spellings knows her audience). In an online "Ask the White House" session, she told one "Lora" from Boone, N.C. that "We are also in the process of looking at whether measuring individual student growth can be included in NCLB. This way of measuring how much each student learns in a year can help us show progress for kids who are above grade level. While we certainly have a lot of work to do in this area, you are right that we need to make sure our gifted students are also receiving a quality education." (you can read the whole chat transcript here.)

Whether anything will happen, though, remains to be seen. I am curious what effects people have seen from NCLB in their own schools with regards to gifted education over the past five years. I suspect that schools that value gifted children and gifted education have continued to find a way to challenge them within the guidelines of NCLB, while schools that have long been itching for a way to abolish or trim gifted education have used the law as a club to do that.

It's popular in some quarters to reflexively bash NCLB, but I don't think that's too smart. A number of districts have improved test scores for low income students over the past few years, a result that is worth celebrating to the high heavens. The USA Today article highlights one Philadelphia elementary school that has seen the proportion of kids scoring at grade level on state reading tests rise from 2 in 10 in 2003 to 7 in 10 in 2005. If those results are being repeated elsewhere, then society will be reaping major benefits 10-15 years from now in higher incomes, reduced crime, etc. Some principals and superintendents are also using NCLB as an excuse to clean house of non-performing teachers and to revamp underwhelming curricula. That's another result worth celebrating.

But it does seem that there should be a way to focus on raising the ceiling and the floor. Testing individual progress -- on a sensitive enough scale (i.e., out-of-level testing for gifted kids) and holding schools accountable for the results would seem like one way. Breaking out results for children identified as gifted could give parents a better idea of which schools nurture such talents. NCLB was also supposed to spur competition between schools, which in theory could have led to special gifted programs at some magnet schools in big cities. Unfortunately, many districts have made it tough for kids to transfer, which reduces the effectiveness of this element of NCLB.

I'm curious about Gifted Exchange readers' verdicts on NCLB at five. Please post and discuss. (I also want to thank readers for linking to this site so often -- when I Googled "Margarent Spellings" and "gifted education" to research this piece, Gifted Exchange came up first!)


The Princess Mom said...

I think NCLB should have always been based on individual students' achievement, rather than grade level achievement. If you're starting with kids who are four year behind grade level and bring them up to one year behind grade level, that's a stupendous achievement. Under current NCLB guidelines, you're a failing school.

The only direct impact NCLB had on my gifted kids was to increase test-taking anxiety. The week before the test, the district sent home a list of "relaxation exercises" (meditation, visualization, etc.) that parents were supposed to teach the kids before test time. Excuse me?

The message was loud and clear: "This test is super-hard and super-important. You need special skills in order to not screw it up." My then-third-grader freaked out. And even though the actual test was laughably easy (according to his teacher), fill-in-the-dot tests continue to make him anxious three years later.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly my online group of parents of Profoundly Gifted Kids was just discussing how these type of tests sometimes don't even allow a child to score above 95%, and are then used to "prove" that the Parent is way off in asking for special accomidations becuase the child is only 95% on a particular test, and that lots of children do that well! I'm not kidding, a 30/30 rated a 95%.

Then there is the search for the "possible" learning disability because some children just can't/won't concentrate on tests that are designed to test their agemates, who are on average 3 years behind what what the highly gifted child is "ready" for and accomplishing at home or in afterschool programs.

Finally I want to bring the NWEA's MAP test to everyone's attention -

I haven't seen this test first hand, but it's got what I'm looking for in an individualized assesment:
1) Computer based so it can adject to the individual student's performance DURING the test.
2) Ability to test at and above age level.
3) Ability to be used over and over to track progress in many differnt areas
4) Copious and useful to teachers and parents reporting. No "below standard" "standard" or "above standard"
5) They even use test results to predict what a child should be achieving on later tests.

So the question is, if tests are individualised, but still below Readiness Level, we won't have accomplished anything.

Ya' Know?

Quiltsrwarm said...

Here is an excerpt from my Gifted and Homeschooling blog post on this subject from last year:

"Did you know that NCLB is a re-authorization of an old act from before I was born (the act was enacted in 1965, I was born in 1969)? Maybe I'm just an ignoramus, but I was surprised by this... So, with just that basic tidbit, simply the age of the original legislation should give folks in any education circle pause to consider that maybe our education system is simply outdated, and instead of being "fixed" perhaps it should have been completely scrapped? Certainly, the huge amount of new laws added to the original act does change it quite a bit, but is it really something new? Did NCLB additions enrich or weaken the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the ESE) of 1965?" Also, the new version is 670 pages long, all written in legislative gobblety-gook... :)

Here is a PDF version of the Act, if you'd like to read it yourself (primary source material!):
NCLB full text here.

I do have a problem with the NCLB's heavy reliance on standardized tests to determine if a child is successful or not. Test results show only how that child was doing at that particular moment in time when the test was given. These tests by their very nature can not take into consideration if the kid was up half the night throwing up, if the child has trouble at home and is thus distracted, whether the kid is on drugs.

Also, as mentioned by a previous blogger, kids who are not good test takers and experience test anxiety do poorly on these types of tests, and tests given verbally are generally not allowed (teachers have been known to get into trouble for reading a question outloud). The fact that teachers and school districts are under pressure to perform to these tests make them "teach to the test," which then translates to more drill and kill, the bane of gifteds.

I am not just spouting others' opinions -- I have experienced this increase in reliance on tests for classroom content and style in the last two years of public school in which we participated. It just so happens that it took us those two years to decide to pull our kids and homeschool them, the climate at school had achieved a low so low we couldn't stand it anymore. Maybe it was NCLB, maybe it was backwards-thinking school officials, I don't know.

My husband, the engineering professor, gets *the* question from his students all the time in his upper level courses -- "is this going to be on the test?"

The question drives him nuts because whether the subject matter shows up on a test or not should never matter, the skills need to be learned in any case.

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with "anonymous" above. The drill and kill aimed at high scores on standardized tests is what my child experiences all year long. They literally teach the test over and over, at the expense of introducing the appropriate grade-level subject matter. There isn't enough time for both, so teachers are forced to drill the same info. day in and out. It is so frustrating as a parent to see such potential wasted, as my child endures another boring day. I have talked to teachers and administrators, but they're under the gun to support NCLB. My inquiries won't change the system. I hate to sound cynical, but my experience tells me the only change will come through private or home schooling. NCLB has not been a good thing for high-end students.

Anonymous said...

I am concerned that schools using the NWEA MAP tests to identify high performing students do not have programs that provide textbooks written at an appropriate level.

Everyone knows that kids at the bottom need special material, but kids scoring 2 standard deviations above the mean also have special needs...schools just ignore them.

Although I did not like the emphasis on testing, I am now a big fan.

The lexile measurements gleaned from MAP tests help to choose materials that takes my child's reading level into account (

Tests also provide quantitative data to help persuade teachers to provide some optional services in the classroom.

Schools and teachers are not the bad guy. There is simply a lack of funding and a lack of awareness.