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The Gaps Don't Seem to Be Closing

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Booker and Fuhrman

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Symposium keynote speaker, with TC President Fuhrman

Most at TC's Equity Symposium agree: NCLB isn't living up to its name

"The researchers and discussants gathered here will focus on the most central concern in education today: the achievement gap between wealthier, primarily white students and those from poor and typically minority backgrounds. And they will do so in the context of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the most sweeping educational legislation in our nation's history.

"NCLB's goals are widely shared, but as we experience how the states are putting it into practice, concerns are being raised. Hopefully this symposium will generate new information that not only will help people in the field, but also inform the policy makers who are going to be debating the reauthorization of the law in 2007."  

Thus Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman set the stage for a two-day marathon in which researchers presented new data about NCLB and debated whether and how to fix the law, which was first enacted in 2002. NCLB is now nearly halfway to its target date of 2014, by which time the law stipulates that all U.S. students must be proficient in reading and math.

"Nothing is sacred, and we'll look at the Act in very profound and hard-hitting ways," said Michael Rebell, Executive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity, which was convening the event. Other organizations, including a special commission of the Aspen Institute that has been holding hearings on NCLB, have also analyzed the law, Rebell said, "but they've already said they won't deal with issues of whether the law is inadequately funded and whether the 100 percent proficiency target is a practical goal. We will, and we're looking forward to rousing participatory discussions."

Rebell's own verdict was that NCLB, while created ostensibly to safeguard the equity vision inherent in the Supreme Court's landmark school desegregation decision, isn't living up to its name. "NCLB's aims are good ones, but aspects of the law appear to be undermining that vision," Rebell said -- and over the next two days, nine studies, presented by a slate of leading educational researchers, seemed to bear out his assessment, detailing poor progress under NCLB on student achievement, teacher quality, accountability and federal oversight.

Among the key findings:

  • While NCLB requires all students nationwide to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, this mandate may be more of an aspirational goal than a reality. The U.S. Department of Education has looked the other way as many states have claimed compliance with NCLB while requiring only low skill levels to pass standardized tests and demonstrate proficiency, instead of challenging skill level as the law stipulates.
  • The concept of "proficient" is so poorly defined by NCLB and varies so much from state to state that it has become a meaningless measure. 
  • There is a "complexity gap" in NCLB's track record thus far -- that is, small improvements have been achieved in lower grades where simple skills are tested but those gains disappear when more complex conceptual thinking is tested in middle and high school students.

More positively, the Symposium revealed enduring sentiment among many school leaders and members of minority groups that NCLB's stated goals are ensuring that the needs of low-achieving students are not being ignored (see accompanying story). The researchers also reported some preliminary indications that the law may benefiting special education students by setting higher performance expectations that, in turn, require stronger curriculum and closer performance monitoring.

"NCLB and Its Alternatives" was convened by The Campaign for Educational Equity on November 13th and 14th and sponsored by the Laurie M. Tisch Foundation. Among its additional findings:

  • The percentage of students who were reported to be proficient or above on the state reading/English language arts assessments in Grade 4 ranged from 35% in Missouri to 89% in Mississippi.  For Grade 8, the range was 30% in South Carolina to 88% in North Carolina. The percentage of students who were reported to be proficient or above on the state mathematics assessments in Grade 4 ranged from 39% in Maine and Wyoming to 92% in North Carolina.  For Grade 8, the range was 16% in Missouri to 87% in Tennessee. Those ranges say more about the varying degree of rigor that states bring to their standards than it does about superior performance by states with more impressive numbers, according to researchers presenting at the symposium.
  • In 2006, one national study identified only 11 states with both strong content standards and assessments whose items closely matched the standards.  In another study that looked at only 14 states, only one out of the 14 demonstrated high quality standards and high quality tests that were well aligned with the standards.
  • In 2005, 44 states had at least 3 years of state assessment data for students with disabilities and 42 reported an upward trend in the percentage of students with disabilities who are benefiting from being instructed in more challenging grade level subject matter and making impressive gains. 
  • In California, the gap in third grade reading proficiency between general education and special education students -- as measured by state reading assessments -- grew by 3 percent (to 21 percent) between 1999 and 2005.  In Maryland and New York the achievement gap also has increased between general education and special education students.  In 2004/05 the gap in reading in NY had reached nearly 50% while in MD, the gap stood at nearly 40 percentage points.
  • As of May 2006, only two states had established an acceptable definition of "high quality teacher" under NCLB and were using that definition to determine the status of teachers of core subjects.
  • As of May 2006, despite the legal requirements of NCLB, no states had in place a plan to ensure that poor or minority children were not being taught by inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers at higher rates than other states.
  • As of May 2006, only 13 states were fully compliant with NCLB in terms of providing parents and the public with accurate reports on the number and percentage of classes in core academic subjects taught by high quality teachers, and in notifying parents of students in Title I schools when their children had been assigned to, or taught for four or more consecutive weeks by, a non high quality teacher.
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