Time to leave behind ‘No Child’

Published 9:13 pm Saturday, August 13, 2011

It must have seemed a good idea at the time. Set up tests to determine whether students in public schools have learned enough to meet a set of minimum standards, put sanctions in place for those schools and systems that repeatedly fail to meet those standards and then apply increasing pressure to achieve by raising the acceptable levels of achievement a little each year, until all students in all schools can boast a certain level of proficiency in certain important subjects.

In practice, the No Child Left Behind Act and its attendant tests, standards and ratings has proved to be a failed experiment in federal meddling in the education process. The most recent evidence of that failure was the Obama administration’s recent offer to waive certain requirements of the act for states that request it.

As with so many programs of the federal government, the noble goals of NCLB have become victims of the bureaucracy surrounding the program, of the unintended consequences associated with it and of the over-broad reach of legislation that attempted to solve too many problems at once.

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Everything that’s wrong with NCLB can be summed up in the Act’s ultimate goal of having 100 percent of students pass the tests that measure their grasp of the various subjects under scrutiny. While every state and every school system should work toward that goal, it is unrealistic to assume the goal is achievable. There always will be students who, for whatever reason, fail in school — or even fail in one particular subject.

Whether for socio-economic reasons or because of learning disabilities, lack of parental involvement, sheer unwillingness to learn or even the occasional substandard teacher, there are bound to be some students each year who don’t get it. Under the stipulations of NCLB, even a few students in one underachieving demographic at one school can cause an entire system to miss its benchmarks.

In Suffolk, only three schools achieved the 86-percent pass rate necessary to have met the federal standard of adequate yearly progress. While it’s clear the city’s school system has a problem bigger than a few students, the NCLB standards clearly offer an inflexible solution to the fluid problem of low educational achievement.

School systems need the ability to react quickly to the evolving needs of their students. One year’s crop of students, for example, might have a greater concentration of concentration of kids living below the federal poverty line, a proven factor in educational problems. Another year’s crop might include more students who speak English as a second language. Both of those groups demand unique educational approaches. But NCLB forces teachers to concentrate on things they know will show up on standardized tests and to take the risk of running out of time to meet the specific needs of their classrooms.

Teachers and school systems deserve, like the rest of society, to be judged for the work they do. But NCLB almost guarantees that those judgments are sterile and unfair. It’s time to leave behind No Child Left Behind.