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

Monday, February 25, 2008

Colorado Students Worse Off After 6 Years of NCLB

Commentary by Angela Engel in the Denver Post:
By Angela Engel
Article Last Updated: 02/24/2008 08:30:21 PM MST

In 2000, Citizens for Quality Public Education published "Senate Bill 186 and The Truth About Colorado Educational Reform," a report warning about the consequences of grading schools based solely on standardized test scores.

Under the leadership of Gov. Bill Owens, SB 186 was passed anyway. At that time, my daughter, Sophie, was 4 months old. The following year, the federal No Child Left Behind was enacted.

Since then, everything the report cautioned concerning high-stakes testing has come to pass: narrowing curriculum, negative school climates, disenfranchised teachers, frustrated parents, and children who quickly losing sight of the value of their own education.

Not only were the Citizens for Quality Public Education correct, but all of the outcomes associated with education reform over the past decade have demonstrated failure. Consider the following:
• Dropout rates have increased significantly. Since the implementation of high-stakes testing, including NCLB and SB 186, Colorado's dropout rate has nearly doubled, from 2.4 percent in 2003 to 4.5 percent in 2006.
• Students now have fewer course electives. A survey by the Center on Education Policy found that since the passage of NCLB and high-stakes testing, 71 percent of the nation's school districts have reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects.
• Recess has been reduced or canceled. According to the National Parent Teacher Association, nearly 40 percent of U.S. schools have either canceled recess or are considering doing so because of the time constraints of standardized testing and budget cuts. Over the past 12 years, DPS has decreased physical education time by an average of 40 minutes per week.
• More than a dozen schools have been closed down. High-stakes testing promised to close the achievement gap, but instead districts are closing schools predominantly in low-income areas. Cole Middle School is on its third conversion in a decade, now that KIPP has abandoned its students. Before SB 186, Cole was a thriving school for the performing arts.
By all indicators, the state's version of school reform has not worked. Even test scores have remained mostly flat, despite the millions spent on McGraw-Hill tests, curriculum guides, and after-school tutorials. Littleton and Cherry Creek, some of the highest performing districts in the state, haven't been meeting federal guidelines for "adequate yearly progress."

The biggest complaints of parents include large class sizes, too much homework, insufficient time for our children to eat lunch or play outside, decreases in programming, and stressful learning environments. These complaints are echoed in the appallingly high turnover of teaching staff.

Assessments aren't the problem; high-stakes testing is. And there is a difference. In very simple terms, the problems we are facing today are the result of an education system that has been redesigned to serve the state. We need a system that serves our children.

Standardization and high-stakes testing rest on a paradigm of uniformity and conformity. If we graduate an entire generation proficient on a single skill set and mindset, we will have failed because our future will depend upon adaptability, imagination and collaboration.

The danger of this game is that it reinforces the misconception of a failing educational system, when what we really have are failing priorities and policies. We can no longer afford to defer the responsibility of our children to a one-size-fits-all test, or "all or nothing" reforms.

This session, Sen. Mike Kopp will introduce Sernate Bill 61, requiring exit exams for 11th-graders. Sen. Peter Groff is sponsoring Senate Bill 130, establishing a two-tiered system for accountability while maintaining the real barrier to innovation: CSAP.

It didn't work in Florida and it won't work in Colorado. Quality doesn't rely on doing the wrong thing better. Before adding more layers of legislation, our government representatives first need to clean up the mess they've already created.

Sophie is 8 years old now; our children simply can't afford to wait any longer for the legislature to come to terms with its mistakes.

Angela Engel is project director for the Children's Action Agenda.

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