"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, January 03, 2008

NCLB and the Perverse Bubble Child Incentive

NCLB test sanctions provide incentives to ignore children who have little or no likelihood of passing the test, i. e., those with the greatest need get the least help. From ASCD:

A recent study by two University of Chicago economists suggests that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is leaving many children behind, especially low and high performers. The authors base their findings on two sets of test scores from 5th graders in the Chicago Public Schools: scores from 2002, after implementation of NCLB, and scores from 1998, when a similar reform approach was tried using the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Students in the middle of the distribution in both groups made greater gains in reading and math than did either low- or high-ability students. Low-ability students scored the same or lower following the reforms; high-ability students showed mixed gains at best.

The report focuses on the repercussions of accountability systems that tie rewards and sanctions to the number of students in certain groups who cross a predetermined proficiency threshold. The report suggests that accountability systems that place great weight on students who score in the middle provide few incentives for teachers to focus time and effort on the least and most able students. According to the authors, "Schools may find it optimal to ignore students who have little or no chance of reaching proficiency without intensive and costly intervention … and to limit services for gifted children who are likely already proficient" (p. 9).

In addition to problems associated with effort allocation, the report lists a number of other concerns:

  • The choice of the proficiency standard will determine how much time teachers devote to students of different ability levels. In fact, "raising standards may actually increase the number of low-achieving children who are ‘left behind’ by increasing the number for whom the standard is out of reach" (p. 5).
  • The goal of 100 percent proficiency does not constitute a "credible threat" in forcing schools to effectively address the needs of their less able students. This goal could actually make matters worse for students who are far below grade level in reading and math.
  • Although NCLB may have narrowed some achievement gaps in Illinois, many black and Hispanic students "were likely not helped and may have been harmed by NCLB" (p. 5). In the Chicago Public Schools, this may amount to more than 25,000 students.
  • Although NCLB calls for highly qualified teachers, the law makes it more difficult for disadvantaged schools to recruit and retain good teachers.

"Contrary to its name," the report notes, NCLB "is not designed to make sure that no child is left behind" (p. 6). In fact, taking into account other U.S. cities that educate large populations of disadvantaged students, NCLB is most likely leaving hundreds of thousands behind.

Left Behind by Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-Based Accountability, by Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, is available at http://home.uchicago.edu/~n9na/web_ver_final.pdf.

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