Friday, March 24, 2006

To hear why No Child fails, just listen to its supporters

By Diane Carman,Denver Post Staff Columnist

It wasn't meant to be this way. Lawrence Hernandez was supposed to be the counterpoint to Richard Rothstein, who calls No Child Left Behind and its philosophical underpinnings "fraudulent."

Instead, at a forum sponsored this week by the Bell Policy Center, Hernandez proved Rothstein's point again and again.

Rothstein insists that the data are in and the evidence is clear: Great schools alone cannot reduce the achievement gap. Expecting that is irresponsible.


Hernandez calls those "excuses."

The founder and principal of Cesar Chavez Academy charter school in Pueblo said he believes that schools can have a tremendous impact on a child's life. In fact, he said, "the public school system is the only system that can make a difference in a child's life."


While Hernandez attributes that success to high expectations, academic rigor, talented teachers and strong leadership, other factors also contributed to the students' exceptional performance.

"The parents have to buy into what we're doing," he said, and that starts when they demonstrate their commitment to education by enrolling their children in the charter school.


No student transportation is provided, so public and private money can be used to reduce class sizes, enhance teachers' salaries and provide tutors for children who fall behind. But inevitably, this creates a barrier for children whose parents are not willing or able to deliver them to school every day.

In other words, not just any kid can go to Cesar Chavez.

Rothstein said there are plenty of examples across the country where the children of disadvantaged-but-highly- motivated parents are concentrated in intense, rigorous schools and do better than the mountains of statistics predict.

"That doesn't mean the average is not meaningful," he said.

In Colorado, the averages show that since the state began mandatory testing to measure achievement, the gap between rich and poor students has widened. With rare exceptions, despite intense pressure and threats to dismantle low-performing schools, children from poor families still are not achieving proficiency at rates better than when the frenzy over educational accountability began.

This is the case across the country, Rothstein said. We're engaging in a "national orgy of hypocrisy."

"We say we want to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children, and we're simultaneously withdrawing support from the social and economic institutions that could enhance equality.

"Holding out the goal of closing the achievement gap through school reform alone is dangerous," Rothstein said. "Holding schools responsible for a goal they can't meet will doom public education."

For those who reject the Jeffersonian ideal of free public education for all, the destruction of the public school system is something to celebrate cynically along with the growing achievement gap.

For everybody else, Rothstein's work offers an ominous warning: If the orgy of hypocrisy continues, the global economy will leave us behind - all of us.

Diane Carman's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at 303-820-1489 or

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The WASL Dilemma

The WASL is Washington State's version of the high stakes tests that are required but NCLB.

by Donald C. Orlich

The Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) is causing deleterious effects on poor, disabled and minority children by creating a permanent "underclass" with just a hint of covert institutional racism.

The WASL purports to (1) measure student achievement, (2) determine school district accountability, (3) evaluate teacher competence, (4) guide school improvement and (5) determine who graduates from high school. Any single test used to address five mutually exclusive goals is unreliable and invalid.

However, my purpose here is to focus on the unintended consequences of the WASL. Discussions about high-stakes tests (WASL, ACT, SAT) must address the issue of student poverty. It behooves all policy makers who have legalized high-stakes testing to at least ask, "What is the impact of student poverty and ethnicity on test scores as a mechanism for sorting and classifying children?"

Studies in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Washington, Denver and Boston — along with others in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales — all show that poverty is a primary determinant of student achievement. High-stakes test scores are very highly correlated with family income. A major study of mathematics tests scores from academic high schools in the metropolitan Boston area led to the conclusion that income is strongly correlated with test scores and accounts for more than 80 percent of the variance in average scores.

School leaders and politicians in Washington state are touting WASL scores as if they were precise educational measures of student learning and overall achievement: The scores are not. Further, the WASL offers virtually no useable feedback to enhance student academic gains.

Examine the WASL 10th-grade first-time pass rates. White and Asian students have significantly higher scores than black, Hispanic, Native American, English language-learners, free/reduced lunch students and students with disabilities. The ranges for mathematics are 52 percent passing to 6 percent passing; and for reading and language arts, 71 percent to 15 percent.

Long-term test data from the WASL, ACT and SAT suggest an ethnic variable related to achievement on high-stakes tests. These data tend to indicate that poverty and ethnicity appear to be inextricably related.

One example tells it all. The WASL test score pass rates of one of Washington state's highest-family-income school districts, Mercer Island, were compared with all children from low-income homes in the state. Extraordinary achievement differences of 40 percent to 60 percent favored Mercer Island children at every grade level and for every subject tested.

On March 1, 2005, the United Nations released Child Poverty in Rich Countries: 2005. Scandinavian countries had the lowest levels of child poverty among the "developed" countries of the world, primarily due to very highly subsidized social benefits paid directly to families. The United States and Mexico had the world's worst child poverty rates. For Mexico, the percentage was 27.7; for the United States, it was 21.9.

The report writers stated that such disparity of wealth leaves many children, through no fault of their own, at a social disadvantage. The report also noted that there is a close correlation between poverty and educational underachievement.


Poverty is a powerful force in creating educational deficits. But you will not find advocates of the WASL discussing that social issue, including the Partnership for Learning, the Business Roundtable, the Superintendent of Public Instruction or our the state legislators. One simply has to ask, "Why the silence?" The social consequence of labeling a generation of adolescents as being flat-out failures from one questionable test needs serious psychological, psychiatric and legal evaluation.

Donald Orlich, professor emeritus at WSU, is author of the upcoming School Reform and the Great American Brain Robbery. Write or call (509) 335-4844.

Publication Date: 3/15/06

Monday, March 20, 2006

'Teach to the Test'? What Test?

By Colman McCarthy from the Washington Post, Saturday, March 18, 2006

The whole opinion piece is worth the read. Some excerpts..

From the academic sidelines, where calls to Leave No Child Untested are routinely sounded by quick-fix school reformers, Jay Mathews joins in with his Feb. 20 op-ed column, "Let's Teach to the Test." In well-crafted prose, he reports that "in 23 years of visiting classrooms I have yet to see any teacher preparing kids for exams in ways that were not careful, sensible and likely to produce more learning."

On Mathews's visit to my classroom four years ago -- at School Without Walls, where I have been volunteering since 1982 -- he must not have noticed that not only was I not preparing my 28 students for tests but that I regard tests as educational insults...

Tests represent fear-based learning, the opposite of learning based on desire. Frightened and fretting with pre-test jitters, students stuff their minds with information they disgorge on exam sheets and sweat out the results. I know of no meaningful evidence that acing tests has anything to do with students' character development or whether their natural instincts for idealism or altruism are nurtured.

I have large amounts of evidence that tests promote the opposite: character defects. After having two of my high school classes read Mathews's column, I asked the students: If during a test the opportunity came to cheat, with no fear of being caught, would you? A majority of hands went up. A few students dismissed the question as naive. Not cheat if you could get away with it? Get real.
Desire-based learning happens when teachers deal in combustibles, when fires are lit and students burn to explore ideas that have nothing to do with what testocrats require. Quality teachers who are fire-lighters often find themselves trapped in schools that have been seduced by the Advanced Placement fad. Teachers whose students can't hack the AP final are regarded as failures.

For 25 years of testing the waters by not testing, I've been telling my students not to worry about answering questions. Be braver and bolder: Question the answers. Which answers? To start, the ones from anyone who champions classroom get-aheadism based on test scores. Throw off your chains, students. You have nothing to lose but your backpacks.

The writer, a former Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace and teaches nonviolence at three high schools and four universities.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

'No Child' law is flunking the test

This commentary is from Cindy Richards of the Chicago Sun-Times.

There was a time when those of us who still believe in the potential of public education worried that the greatest evil spawned by our national love affair with standardized testing was that it encouraged schools to "teach to the test."

Who knew "teaching to the test" would become the good ol' days in education?

But it's happening. As the national No Child Left Behind Act has raised the stakes of test results, schools are doing something much worse than altering their curriculum to fit the subjects being tested: They're teaching about the test.

The tests have been in the news as state administrators wring their hands over the inadequate performance of Harcourt Assessment, the private company that got $45 million of our money to produce the tests Illinois third- through eighth-graders are taking this week and next.

But we ought to be wringing our hands over something much more critical to the future of our children: the question of whether this testing is harming these students.

They are losing a week of instruction to testing, which is bad enough. But the test week comes on top of two or more weeks spent teaching kids how to take the test effectively -- those now critical education skills such as how to parcel out your time and how to fill in those blasted little circles with a No. 2 pencil.

Test prep efforts have intensified this year because schools are running scared. Last year, one-third of the state's 879 districts failed to make "adequate yearly progress." And the bar continues to rise, so more schools are likely to fail this year, no matter how many practice tests the kids took.

Meanwhile, President Bush has been touring the country talking about his plan to bolster math and science education -- while my sixth-grade son was spending his math class taking practice tests, not learning new math skills.

In a meeting with newspaper editors last week, Bush said he takes umbrage at suggestions his cornerstone education reform law puts too much emphasis on testing. "My answer to those concerns is that, how do you know if you don't test?" he said.

My answer to him is: Ask the teacher. It doesn't take a standardized test for any teacher worth her paycheck to know, exactly, which of her students is making the grade. And if we want to know how the school is doing overall, then analyze the report cards the kids bring home every few months.

Stan Karp, a New Jersey high school teacher and critic of No Child Left Behind, has written extensively about the law for Rethinking Schools, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that publishes a journal about school reform.

"This is school reform on the cheap," Karp said. It costs schools about $20 a kid to develop a test, he said, "a lot less than it costs to have everybody pass them."

Schools, in their fervor to hurdle the ever-increasing performance bar, are doing everything they can to help kids test well -- weeks of test drills, free breakfast on test days, a reorganized curriculum and lower state benchmarks that allow more kids to pass.

No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization in 2007, which makes the November midterm election an especially critical one for public education. This law, which passed Congress with bipartisan support, needs some serious retooling.

Its goal may have been to ensure no child was left behind, but its reality is that no child is left untested while doing little to raise the level of performance of public schools.

Friday, March 10, 2006

No Child Left Behind has failed

Conferences are over and I can think again! I'm back. Read this opinion piece from the Minnesota Daily. Mr. Peter Henry makes a great case for the repeal of NCLB, and I, of course, could not agree more.