Also see comments below.
† This editorial, Sept. 7, is unworthy of the Times, as it portrays only one side of the NCLB issue -- the one favored by the right-wing Bush administration.† It has all the usual "industrial" quality-control ideas expressed in a heavy-handed way.
† There are many problems with the NCLB law and the way it's administered.† Space doesn't permit me to go into them all, but here's a short list. Notice that none of these have anything to do with protecting labor union rights, which is the only issue that Ms. Spelling brings up in nearly every speech:
† -- the tests are designed and administered by the states, to varying standards, yet the law demands punishments as though all the tests were equivalent.† They aren't, by a long shot.
† -- NCLB demands an ever-improving overall test score, and thatís just totally unreasonable.† By raising the bar each year, NCLB is just setting up the schools for failure.† We are already seeing too many fine schools being rated "under-performing" or "failing".† There's an underlying assumption here that our public schools are just not performing, or the teachers are lazy, etc.† I don't buy that assumption for a minute -- it's unproven.
† -- Each class of students is different, so comparing one grade level test score from year to year as a measure of "teaching effectiveness" is almost meaningless.
† -- Are these tests calibrated?† I don't think so, on the grounds of how on earth one could possibly calibrate them?† What is the standard?† Saying that we want our kids to read and write makes for fine political speeches, but not much else.
† -- As Banesh Hoffman ("The Tyranny of Testing") points out so ably, the multiple-choice test has severe inherent limitations.† It is unable to assess much more than a few superficial ideas.† Superior students will often be bamboozled by two or more answers which can all be arguably correct -- which one did the tester have in mind?† I've analyzed several of the sample science and math questions printed in our newspaper, and can show that they do not really measure what they purport to.† For example, a question about falling bodies can be answered with some easy substitutions, with no need to understand anything about the physics, or even solving equations.† I suspect that most of the questions are like that, testing only a few superficial topics and failing to assess the "real stuff".† They are fluff, disguised in a scientific-sounding framework, pretending to assess the real scientific concepts.
† -- It's obvious that a test at best evaluates the current state of a child's understanding of certain topics.† Assuming that the test results can also be used to evaluate the school is a fallacy.† NCLB ignores this central problem.
† -- It's now the case that too many teachers are "teaching to the test". They know that much rides on those tests, and their natural reaction is to find out as much about them as possible, then drill the students on those topics.† Or, at least, on how to find the shortcuts to answering multiple-choice questions correctly.† All else of value in education goes in the trash.
† -- No one seems to pay any attention to the variances of the test scores, only the averages.† The variances are surely very large, and they impose a severe limit on what can be concluded from test scores across time, across schools and across states.† This is elementary statistical theory, and something that our secretary of education Spelling seems not to grasp.
† -- There is of course the problem of English learners, from our growing immigrant population.† NCLB seems to ignore this.† The tests require a good grasp of English, and are incomprehensible to a child recently arriving in our country.† Why does a school have to take the hit for this?
† -- Schools are scored on the total number of children enrolled, yet any parent can opt out of the test by signing a form.† An opt-out counts as zero against the school, yet the school is powerless to do anything about it.
† -- Why is it now the case that the public school systems are totally responsible for a child's development and education?† What happened to the parent's responsibility, the community's, the child's peers (gangs vs. friends vs. study groups)?† We know that the school system works hard to combat drugs, attention-deficit disorder, etc., but it cannot really solve these problems by itself.
† -- It follows from all this that the superior students will be left to drift for themselves.† Well, some will probably make it to college anyway, if motivated.† Or they will just drift out into a gang or into drugs, out of boredom with the teach-to-test drill work.† We have not yet seen the consequences of this waste, but we will, in ever-decreasing college enrollments, higher attrition rates, etc.† Schools need to provide for the superior students, too, but the crunch demanded by NCLB means that these students will inevitably be short-changed.
† -- Demanding that schools hire only qualified teachers will set up yet another bureaucratic mess that is supposed to determine when a teacher is "certified".† And where are the higher salaries that this will require coming from?
† -- How is that Washington can now dictate so much in our public schools, and do it so cheaply?† They have public school systems, which are supposed to be locally controlled and locally financed, running through hoops just to get another 5 to 6% in federal money.† And worse -- the "failing" schools are supposed to be taken over by the state.† If the federal government now has the power to declare a local public school "failing", why doesnít it take it over, and maybe spend 0.01% of the cost of a bomber to fix it?
† In general, the NCLB system appears to have been designed by corporate quality control engineers, who assume that a school is just a factory, with raw goods coming in and finished goods going out.† You can hold a factory accountable for its output quality.† But you can't treat a school system that way, especially not a public school, which is required to accept all the children in its region.† Children are not "raw materials", they come with great variability in skills and attitudes, and they are influenced by many factors that are not under the school's control.
† Also, the art of testing a child's grasp of a subject is far inferior to the sort of testing that one can make on inanimate objects, such as cell phones or computer chips.† The latter don't learn anything from the test, and are totally designed and manufactured from simple components, and it all follows precise physical laws.
† Children just aren't that way.
† My preference is for the federal government to increase its support for the schools, come up with a uniform reading/writing test if the Congress so wishes, but then to let our local school boards, teachers, parents and children to work out what's best for the children.
† Let's put an end to this draconian misuse of multiple-choice tests as a way to "punish" and "correct" schools.
† I should point out that I have a physics PhD, and have served in several research and industrial centers, and have also some twenty years of university-level teaching experience in physics, math and engineering.†† My web page, http://www.wbarrett.online, describes my training, career, research interests, and subjects taught.
William A. Barrett, PhD
San Jose, CA