PURE testimony to the Senate Education Committee Subcommittee on NCLB

Presented by Julie Woestehoff, PURE executive director September 12, 2003


Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) is a public school parent advocacy organization based in Chicago. We have a paid membership of 800 parents, teachers, and others who care about high quality public school education for all children. PURE's goal is that every child have a high-quality education and we work every day to improve our schools to make our vision become a reality.

Parents have the most at stake in the quality of our schools which play a huge part in determining our children's future. But everyone benefits from strong public schools. A high quality school makes its community stronger and provides greater opportunity for the children of the neighborhood. A strong public school system makes the entire city, state and nation stronger and all our futures brighter.

I am here today to describe the impact of the No Child Left Behind act on the parents, families, and schools we work with, and on our ability to create high-quality schools for all our children.

In general, PURE feels that some aspects of the NCLB law are positive. PURE supports: accountability; high academic standards for all children; high-quality assessments which use multiple measures and comprehensively assess the full breadth of state learning standards; high level requirements for educational staff; extra help for at-risk students; and parental involvement in school improvement.

However, these positive aspects of the law are being overwhelmed by the perfect storm of NCLB compliance now sweeping the nation. And it's the parents who are being swamped with wave after wave of bad news about their child's school. Parents are feeling that their only real choices are to bail out or go under.

Problems with NCLB

PURE has three major criticisms of the NCLB law.
1. Instead of setting higher standards for accountability, NCLB encourages misuse and overuse of standardized testing.
2. Instead of empowering parents, NCLB manipulates parents and interferes with important home-school relationships.
3. Instead of offering support and resources for improvement, NCLB forces the system to divert our children's education funds into strategies that don't help our schools.

1. TESTS: Test scores are not enough

We do not agree with NCLB's mandate to label schools based on year-to-year test score changes. This has already led to the ridiculous situation of schools appearing on the list to offer choice one year and on the list of receiving schools the next. Educators and testing professionals know that year-to-year test scores provide highly unreliable information. This is simply a mistaken policy and should be changed immediately.

In fact, test score-based accountability is highly overrated. Test scores are wrongly equated with too many important goals — high achievement, mastery of knowledge, ability, readiness, school quality, etc. — which these tests were never designed to measure. Accompanying the increasing emphasis on standardized tests is an increase in inexcusable testing blunders, some of which only come to light after the tests have been published. This is why some states require portions of their tests to be published every year. Unfortunately, Illinois does not.

We are concerned that the federal government has rushed states into compliance with an over-simplified interpretation of NCLB assessment requirements.

Using scores on a set of standardized tests to make important decisions that affect both children and adults does a disservice to everyone. Tests are wrong too many times, and test-focused policies simply hurt children, as we have seen over the past several years of high-stakes testing and retention in Chicago.

PURE supports a high-quality state assessment system which uses multiple measures including classroom-based assessment to create a system that would more accurately evaluate student and school progress toward the whole range of learning standards, and directly support improved teaching and learning. I have attached five specific recommendations for such a system.

2. RELATIONSHIPS: NCLB undermines stability, trust, and effective parent involvement

There is no sound research that school choice is an effective reform measure. There is, however, a great deal of evidence that reducing student mobility, building trust among adults and students, and involving parents meaningfully in the school have a direct positive impact on student achievement. Unfortunately, the most conspicuous aspects of NCLB undermine all of these efforts.

We strongly disagree with NCLB's mandate that districts offer student transfers. We do not believe that it is an effective solution to poor educational opportunity. There is no evidence that choice, or competition, leads to better education for children. There is no research showing that offering choice improves either the schools children leave or the children's chances of success at their new school. Research does show, however, that moving from school to school sets students back. Reducing student mobility is a goal for most school districts, but NCLB forces increased mobility.

Most parents want their children to stay in the same school. Many parents strongly prefer their neighborhood schools which are important local institutions. Some families have had two or three generations enrolled in the local school where teachers know the families and vice versa, and faith communities and community programs have established ties with the school and its families. We agree that the trust between the school and the parents can be misplaced. In fact, too many parents of children in poorly-performing schools have no clue that their children are being shortchanged.

But the parents who call us are sending the federal government a clear message- "Don't tell me to move my child to another school - help me make my child's school better!" In Chicago, parents are the elected majority on our local school councils. LSCs can do a lot to improve their schools. They need more support. We call on the federal government to enforce other parent involvement provisions of NCLB such as parent involvement in school improvement planning. That is a reform strategy with a proven track record in Chicago and elsewhere.

Parents who call us are sending the federal government a clear message- "Don't tell me to move my child to another school - help me make my child's school better!"

Letters mislead parents

PURE is especially disturbed at the way the federal program manipulates parents' minds and hearts. The multiple letters some parents received are confusing and frightening. Some of the "information" parents are being given is derived from misapplied test score information or unfair application of new rules. Letters announce to parents that certain teachers are unqualified even if they had not been given an adequate chance to meet the new federal criteria and had met all other requirements. Other letters proclaim schools to be failures based on a misuse of standardized test scores.

The process makes little sense unless you assume that the law was designed to increase parents' demand for school vouchers, which has been weak. In any case, the program's effect is to undermine trust between schools and parents which we believe is essential for improved student achievement and school quality. We would be especially angry if this were being done to advance an anti-public school, pro-voucher agenda.

We cannot fail to mention the betrayal parents have felt by a lesser-known NCLB mandate. The federal government has demanded the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of all high school students and has been turning them over to military recruiters. This happened before most parents had a chance to opt out. Wasn't the whole nation just flooded with information about and time to enroll in the Do Not Call list? Well, there was no Do Not Call to Recruit My Child list web site or 800 number, and parents feel angry about that, especially when the danger to our young men and women in the military has become so great.

The program's effect is to undermine trust between schools and parents which we believe is essential for improved student achievement and school quality. We would be especially angry if this were being done to advance an anti-public school, pro-voucher agenda.

Finally, parents are really angry that the money and effort spent on compliance with NCLB are diverted from effective school improvement work. They are disappointed that they are receiving negative letters about their child's school instead of information about the school's plans for progress throughout the year and how they can be involved.

3. RESOURCES: Lack of adequate school funding at federal and state levels

This leads to one more important problem: NCLB does nothing to improve the adequacy or fairness of school funding. While funding schools is primarily a state responsibility, no school or student should be held accountable for meeting high standards if the state or district has failed to provide the necessities for a high-quality education. In fact, we believe that there should be a federal constitutional right to a high-quality education for every child in America.

Unfortunately, we live in a state that does not make the funding of children's education a priority. The Education Trust found that the spending gap between the wealthiest and poorest school districts in Illinois is 38%, the largest gap of any state in the nation. The $2,060 average per-pupil gap would add up to over $50,000 per classroom. This is enough to double the number of teachers per classroom! The Education Trust recommends that states use a funding formula weighted for poverty, which Illinois does, and increase its share of school funding, which Illinois has not done. In fact, the state's share of school funding has steadily declined. The state's current contribution of 37% makes Illinois the third worst in the nation.

We are encouraged by the June 26, 2003, New York Court of Appeals ruling that New York State is not providing sufficient funding to the New York City schools to give students "a sound basic education." The ruling requires the state to determine the cost of "a sound basic education" by July 30, 2004, and then to fund the schools accordingly. We hope, however, that we will not need to spend the next ten years in court, which is what it took New York's Campaign for Fiscal Equity to achieve this victory.

PURE believes that we will be able to say we have done everything possible to leave no child behind only when all schools receive adequate and equal resources. This includes a safe, clean, and pleasant facility, professional leadership, a qualified, well-trained, and well-supported teaching staff, and all necessary materials and equipment. Resources must be available for parent involvement programs. Information and data about the school budget and programs and student progress must be easily available and frequently communicated and reviewed. Information about and training in the best instructional practices must be widely available and easily accessible by school staff and parents. Assessment must be high-quality and include a variety of measures taken over time.

This is not to say, as many are beginning to do, that NCLB would work if only it were fully funded. Many of NCLB's faults would only be magnified if those provisions were funded at higher levels.

Conclusion and recommendations

As it currently exists, the NCLB law raises important questions but provides no effective solutions. NCLB does not support meaningful school improvement. It ignores much of what we already know about how to support high-quality teaching and learning. NCLB has so far been most successful in creating distrust, instability, and confusion. It has especially injured parents and children who are more victims than beneficiaries of this program.

Recommendations for the state are attached

Recommendations for a revised NCLB

Stop using year-to-year test scores in computing annual yearly progress; begin using three-year averages of data collected from multiple sources.

Provide more financial and administrative support for true multiple assessment systems such as that used in Maine which combines a statewide standardized test with local assessments in grades 4, 8, and 11 and uses only local assessments in grades 3,5,6, and 7.

Drop the student transfer option; replace with support services at the local school, fully funded by the federal program.

Set a standard for providing equitable, adequate school funding which states must meet in order to receive NCLB funds.

Develop a monitoring process to assure implementation of the parent involvement components of NCLB.

Assure that no academic sanctions be placed on any student who attends a school on the transfer list or has been taught by a teacher who is not qualified.

Set as the default an opt-in process in which parents must choose to have their children's contact information sent to military recruiters.

Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) recommendations Illinois state assessment and accountability system. October 2002

PURE believes that a high-quality assessment and accountability system is essential to high-quality education. We support a state system which is built on high-quality learning standards, incorporates multiple measures of student progress over time, values local assessment, is transparent to the public, and demonstrably supports improved teaching and learning.

Our specific recommendations for implementing such a system are as follows:

Specify in the law that state test scores may not to be used alone to make important educational decisions about children.

Rationale: Since 1996, set cut-off scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills have been used as promotion barriers for Chicago Public Schools children. This violates the test makers guidelines, sound educational practice, and the standards of the testing profession. It has led to a higher drop out rate of younger children and a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on ITBS skills drill. However, when standardized test scores are the only valued measure of school improvement, the pressure grows on schools and districts to show ever-increasing scores, offering a powerful motivation to attach high stakes to individual students' standardized test scores. We recommend that this not be an option, and that the best practice of using of multiple measures for assessment and accountability be the standard of practice in Illinois.

Require that other measures of student progress beyond standardized tests be included in student and school assessment.

Rationale: The Illinois learning standards are a fairly comprehensive list of what students should know and be able to do. The majority of these standards cannot be assessed using multiple choice tests, even if they are supplemented by open-ended and essay questions. Because of the pressure to increasingly raise test scores, the skills and knowledge which can be assessed by paper-and-pencil tests will take precedence over other, less "testable" knowledge and skills. We must assure that we give equal weight in our assessment and accountability system to the widest range of educational content. This can only be done if the system includes portfolio and demonstration evidence of student progress.

Require publication of significant portions of annual ISAT tests.

Rationale: Many states include a requirement that the testing system be open and transparent. This is essential if there is to be public trust in the tests. The recent case of the editing of primary tests in the New York State Regents test is a clear example of why public scrutiny is important. In Illinois, bad questions and inappropriate illustrations, for example, have become public knowledge through leaks to the press. The public has a right to know what the tests look like in context, not just in the outrageous example.

Specify regular public review and revision of state learning standards and related assessment.

Rationale: The ISAT and state learning standards are still under construction and in need of further improvement (as per Achieve, for example). Most parents we work with are quite unaware of the learning standards and may or may not agree that they capture the most important things that children should know and be able to do. These statements should be reviewed and revised by all the stakeholders, with special emphasis on parents who have the most at stake in what their children are being taught. There must also be greater opportunity for parents and other members of the public to consider how those standards should be assessed.

Strengthen local involvement in school annual internal review through training, information, and incentives; in Chicago, specify in law that the annual internal review report is submitted to the local school council.

Rationale: Because so many key areas of state learning standards cannot be effectively assessed through multiple choice tests, and to increase the involvement of the public in evaluating their schools, the annual internal review must once more become a key component of school accountability. In Chicago, the school improvement plan (SIP) is the central accountability document for each local school. Through the SIP process, the school community comes together to review the school's current status, to develop focused plans and strategies, and to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the school's educational services. The district and state use the SIP as the starting point for their own monitoring and evaluation processes. This individualized, qualitative system is fundamental to local school reform. We support the return of the local school improvement plan to its position as the central accountability document for the state, the district, and the local school community. This gives back the primary role in student assessment to those who know the students best — their teachers, other school professionals, and families.

Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE)
407 S. Dearborn #515 Chicago, IL 60605 Tel. 312/461-1994 Fax: 312/461-1927 www.pureparents.org e-mail: pure@pureparents.org