This is a report from the trenches on the effects NCLB has on a typical California middle school.
People worry about teachers teaching to the test. People worry that elective programs will be shortchanged in favor of tested classes (mainly English and Math.) People worry that the educational mission, to give all children a decent 21st century education, will be perverted somehow into a quest to make the required numbers on the annual test marathon.
But what is so bad about accountability? And how can you have accountability without testing, and holding schools to standards as to how many students pass or fail the tests?
The devil, as they say, is in the details, and the details are below the fold.
Welcome to hell, where the devil lives.
This started a couple of years ago, at a professional development meeting. Rather than spend the time learning how to be better teachers, we spent some time looking over the results of our annual test. The results included names of individual students and were broken down by grade level. We spent some time taking a close look at which students fell into which achievement category.
We have several categories, or bands, that the students fall into based on their test scores. The middle band is Basic. There are two bands below that, Below Basic and Far Below Basic. The two bands above Basic are Proficient and Advanced. A nice five level hierarchy: FBB, BB, B, P and A.
At the time, we were asked to identify students who seemed out of place. Students who scored, say, Below Basic when, as far as we could tell, as their teacher, they should have scored Basic or Proficient. Students who might have had a bad day, or were going through some "stuff" and blowing off school. Students who, with a bit of adult encouragement, could do better, even much better, than they were doing.
All rather innocuous. What could be wrong with giving a little extra encouragement to a student who might be going through some hard times? Even when the hard times happened to be one of the student's teachers who was on his case because the student constantly broke some school rule? Maybe a transfer to a teacher who was a bit more... relaxed... about that particular rule.
Well, test scores went up some, so the powers that be figured it must have been one of their special programs that did the trick, so they, at least, were encouraged to do more of the same.
The following year we were required to identify students on the borderline between categories, Below Basic students who were a couple of right answers away from a score of Basic. Basic students a couple of right answers away from a score of Proficient. The administration collected the names of these students, and their teachers were told that these students were on a special "help this student succeed" list. Teachers were advised to give these students extra help, and the student's team (the teachers who had the student for the core academic subjects) had to spend time brainstorming ideas how to help those students move up into the next higher category.
How does this help? Well, to understand that, you need to know that the school is judged based on the number of students in each category. If the number of students in the Proficient and Advanced category goes up, that's a good thing, if the number of students in the Far Below Basic and Below Basic category go down, that's a good thing too.
Now, let's take a look at a hypothetical school with 100 students and a 100 question test. Our hypothetical students each score a different hypothetical score the day they take the test. So for each score, from zero to one hundred, we have a student with that score. There are 20 students in each band, 20 FBB, 20 BB, 20 B, 20 P and 20 A.
Our hypothetical school works hard, trains its teachers, motivates all its students, does the right things at the right times, and every student in the school moves up 2 points--answers two more questions correctly on the test. What do the school statistics look like?
18 FBB, 20 BB, 20 B, 20 P and 22 A. Rather than seeing that every student improved, we see that we gained a couple of advanced students, lost a couple of far below basic students, and for the rest, not much difference. No difference. Still 20 BB, 20 B and 20 P.
All that hypothetical hard work, and almost nothing shows up on the scoreboard. Then the district steps in, and decides that the Advanced students are autodidacts and don't need much help, and the Far Below Basic students are too far from Basic to benefit from any help, and decides to concentrate on the Below Basic students.
And that brings us to this year.
We identified 50 students who tested Below Basic last year and who are within a few questions of scoring in the Basic category. We pulled these students out of their electives or PE classes for a three week Intervention/Test Prep class in either English or Math, depending on where the greatest possibility for getting the student to bump up the school's score lies. The teachers teaching this three week intensive are paid extra. In other words, the district puts significant resources into training a specially selected 50 students in the hopes that they will help move the school up a notch.
Rather than trying to raise the achievement of all our students, we are trying to game the system to make it appear we are making progress by providing special interventions to less than 3% of our student body.
Don't misunderstand: we haven't stopped teaching the other 97%. We teachers are still trying our best to educate these non-borderline students. But our special, funded, targeted intervention is based on moving a select few students ahead.
I can't see this as other than a conscious decision to leave the rest of the students behind.