Warning: NCLB Side Effects

K-12 Testing

While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has focused school officials’ attention on staying off the dreaded list of schools failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress, the story of the law’s negative effects on teaching and learning, educators and students, particularly in schools at risk of failure, is beginning to emerge.


Narrow Curriculum
A student at an elementary school in Maryland described her day this way: “In the morning we read. Then we go to Mrs. Witthaus and read. Then after lunch we read. Then we read some more.” Particularly in many poor districts with poor tests results, much of what was once considered essential to a good public school education is getting squeezed out, including art, music, science, social studies, gym and recess.


In Florida, pressure to improve scores on the state’s FCAT exams has teachers reporting a sacrifice in the quality of their teaching and students’ experience in the classroom. “We’re just racing through everything,” said Denise Edgar, a 10-year teacher at Woodlawn Elementary. “We were just talking at lunch today about how elementary school was a time when you find out what you’re good at and what you like. It was a time when you liked school. Not any more.”


Two recent studies support a flood of news stories depicting how NCLB is narrowing curriculum to math and English test preparation. “Academic Atrophy: The Condition of Liberal Arts in America’s Public Schools” described how the arts, foreign language and elementary social studies are being squeezed. The Council for Basic Educa-tion’s March 2004 report found evidence that narrowing was most severe in schools with higher numbers of minority and low-income students.


A report from the National Association of State Boards of Education concurs that NCLB’s pressure is narrowing school curricula. “The Complete Curriculum: Ensuring a Place for the Arts and Foreign Languages in America’s Schools” reported, “Arts and Foreign Language instruction has been marginalized and is increasingly at risk of being completely eliminated as part of the public schools’ core curriculum.”


High-Tech Test Prep
When it comes to improving academic achievement for low-income minority students, there is widespread agreement that well-trained teachers providing high-quality instruction are essential. Instead, some poor students are getting test preparation via computer, paid for with NCLB funds. An insightful series of articles by Baltimore Sun reporter Alec MacGinnis on “a new digital divide” illustrated how NCLB is creating new ways to widen rather than narrow the race- and class-based gap. MacGinnis described the ways computer and software companies target administrators in underfunded, low-scoring schools. They push expensive test preparation products, often making claims for the products soley based on their own, unsubstantiated research.


MacGinnis concluded, “Instead of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students, the landmark law might be underwriting a new ‘digital divide’ at the very time when, thanks to billions in public investment, needy schools are catching up in their access to computers.”


The Orlando Sentinel reported in June 2004 that state officials were investigating allegations that close to 160 Florida schools transferred struggling students to new schools before state test time in hopes of improving school scores. Researchers and educators report that pressure to rid schools of low-scoring students and thereby improve results is growing under NCLB. According to Illinois Education Committee Chairman Senator Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), “There is tremendous pressure on districts [from NCLB]. All of this is creating a climate that creates a disincentive to hang on to students and help them go the extra mile to stay in school.”


NCLB’s lax accountability for graduation rates is likely to increase the temptation to push out likely low scorers, worsening an already abysmal graduation rate for minority students. Nationally, according to a February 2004 Urban Institute study, about 75 percent of white students graduate in four years, compared to 50 percent of black students, 53 percent of Latino students, and 77 percent of Asian students.


One way the push-out phenomenon manifests itself is in the rising numbers of teens opting out, or being encouraged to opt out, of traditional high school programs in favor of General Educational Development (G.E.D.) programs.