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

Sunday, January 18, 2009

FairTest's Open Letter to the President-Elect

From FairTest. HT to Ken Bernstein:
Keep Your Promises to Fix NCLB

January 7, 2009

Dear President-elect Obama:

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) congratulates you on your historic victory and endorses your message of uniting all Americans to work for positive change.

During your campaign, you spoke with power and clarity about the serious challenges facing our schools due to the flaws of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. On the seventh anniversary of NCLB being signed into law by George W. Bush, we urge you and secretary of education nominee Arne Duncan to keep your promises to America’s children and work quickly to address NCLB’s flaws through the reauthorization process.

Today, a growing majority of Americans across the political spectrum recognize that NCLB has failed to live up to its promise to close learning gaps between racial groups and raise the performance of the nation’s schools. Most agree it has transformed too many schools into mind-numbing test-prep centers.

According to a recent Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, eight in ten Americans believe that NCLB must be completely revamped in order to succeed. In addition, the federal government’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that student academic performance rose more rapidly before NCLB was adopted than after it went into effect.

NCLB needs a fundamental overhaul to ensure that all students learn up to their potential. That’s why FairTest initiated an alliance of 150 national civil rights, education, religious, parent, labor, children’s, and civic organizations which have signed a statement calling for a new direction for federal education policy (see list at http://www.edaccountability.org/Joint_Statement.html). We were heartened by your statements on the campaign trail about NCLB’s shortcomings and want to support your efforts to create a new, beneficial law.

President-elect Obama, please heed your strong statements and promises concerning NCLB as you move to make positive change in the nation’s education policy. For example, you said:

  • “We should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.” We agree and recommend that NCLB end its overreliance on simple-minded tests, which have dumbed down both teaching and learning in the quest for higher scores, and reduce the amount of mandated testing.
  • We need to use “a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students’ abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas.” We agree and recommend that a reauthorized NLCB incorporate multiple measures of student learning and school quality that promote educational excellence. These can include real-world performance tasks, collections of student work that can be independently reviewed, evaluations by inspection teams, and standardized tests. To make this work, there needs to be a proper balance of local and state assessments.
  • “Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong.” We agree. Researchers have concluded that NCLB will label 70 to 100 percent of the schools in the nation as 'failures.' A new law should stop this massive over-labeling and start helping schools improve. That means providing adequate funding for a broad range of educational services and developing better assessment tools. It means giving teachers themselves ongoing opportunities to learn, as all professionals must, so they can do their jobs better. It means holding schools, districts and states accountable for meeting reasonable rates of progress and taking positive steps toward improved teaching and learning.
  • “Forcing our teachers, our principals, and our schools to accomplish all of this without the resources they need is wrong.” We agree. Sadly, the law was not designed to provide the resources or the help to make schools better. Instead, it requires actions that do little to strengthen teaching and learning. Some of them, such as the tutoring provision, divert resources from schools serving low-income children and give those resources to private test preparation firms, with little evidence of benefit to the tutored students. The federal government needs to fully fund the overhauled law and meet its obligations to children and communities.
Educators, parents, and students across the country trust that you will keep these important promises and that your inauguration will be a step toward bringing desperately needed change to our schools. Red state and blue state, urban and rural, rich and poor Americans all want a federal education law that actually helps children learn, instead of just testing, labeling, and punishing them. FairTest and our allies in the Forum on Educational Accountability would be honored to be among the first to support your efforts to bring such a law into being.


Jesse Mermell
Executive Director

Cc: Arne Duncan


  1. Anonymous10:54 AM

    The devil is in the details (DD) of the Fair Test Alliance (FTA) recommendations. (For space reasons, I’ll focus on reading, but the same logic is applicable to math:

    FTA 1: “Replace the law's arbitrary proficiency targets with ambitious achievement targets based on rates of success actually achieved by the most effective public schools.”

    DD 1: The commitment to teach all kids to read is achievable. But if this job is not delivered by Grade 3 at the latest, a child is almost irretrievably an instructional casualty. NCLB begins testing at that point. What is being measured is termed “comprehension” but the tests correlate as high with socioeconomic status as the reliability of the test allows.

    FTA 2: “Allow states to measure progress by using students' growth in achievement as well as their performance in relation to pre-determined levels of academic proficiency.”

    DD 2: NCLB mandates that achievement be reported in terms of “grade levels” that are defined only in terms of the test characteristics, not in transparent acquisition of reading expertise. “Proficiency” is reported using arbitrarily-set cut scores on an ungrounded statistical scale. Given DD 1, the only “growth” is error variance. The “progress” will track differences in SES census units as well as it will the acquisition of reading expertise.

    FTA 3: “Ensure that states and school districts regularly report to the government and the public their progress in implementing systemic changes to enhance educator, family, and community capacity to improve student learning.”

    DD 3: Schools are being paid to “improve student learning”—by teaching kids to read. No further eyewash is needed.

    FTA 4: “Provide a comprehensive picture of students' and schools' performance by moving from an overwhelming reliance on standardized tests to using multiple indicators of student achievement in addition to these tests.”

    DD 4: Add to the testing burden? Are you kidding? It’s simple to determine if a kid can read. You put a text containing words that are within the child’s spoken vocabulary in front of the kid, and say “Read this and tell me what it says.” A kid who can do this can read. The crux is what to do with kids who can’t read. But that’s a matter of instruction, not testing.

    FTA 5: “Fund research and development of more effective accountability systems that better meet the goal of high academic achievement for all children.”

    DD 5:”More research is needed” is the classical cop out in educational research. It’s pie in the sky, and this is now.

    FTA 6: “Help states develop assessment systems that include district and school-based measures in order to provide better, more timely information about student learning.”

    DD 6: Translation: After researchers have had their piece of the pie, cut another piece for state educrats.

    FTA 7: “Strengthen enforcement of NCLB provisions requiring that assessments must:
    • Be aligned with state content and achievement standards;
    • Be used for purposes for which they are valid and reliable;
    • Be consistent with nationally recognized professional and technical standards;
    • Be of adequate technical quality for each purpose required under the Act;
    • Provide multiple, up-to-date measures of student performance including measures that assess higher order thinking skills and understanding; and
    • Provide useful diagnostic information to improve teaching and learning.”
    DD 7: Empty “professional” piety.

    FTA 8: “Decrease the testing burden on states, schools and districts by allowing states to assess students annually in selected grades in elementary, middle schools, and high schools.”

    FTA 8: “Decrease the testing burden on states, schools and districts by allowing states to assess students annually in selected grades in elementary, middle schools, and high schools.”

    DD 8 Play DD 1 and 4 again, Sam.

    The rest of the FTA recs are combination of pork barrel and protect-your-ass provisions.

    Can “150 national civil rights, education, religious, parent, labor, children’s, and civic organizations” be wrong? I’ll let the reader decide. “Wrong” is the wrong word, actually. It’s just that the statement doesn’t tell the President what the country will get if the recommendations were to be adopted. The statement is Alliance-serving, but not student, school, or citizenry serving.

    More homework is needed. To improve the productivity of American el-hi schooling, the commonplace considerations are: reliability of effects, time, and cost. Applying these straightforward standards would indeed provide Change to accomplish the worthy aspirations of NCLB, in less time and at lower cost.

  2. Anonymous12:52 PM

    That previous post appears quite lovely with impressive-sounding technical jargon that actually say very little, but does provide a baffling cover for more BS arguments.


    NCLB lacks ANY validity at all because of this.

    NCLB cannot be repaired--It can only be put
    out of its misery.

    There is no rational defense of NCLB---ONLY dishonest, BS arguments that never stand
    up to scrutiny.


  3. Anonymous7:07 PM

    Hmm, Nitko. You've fingered the wrong factor. Multiple choice questions CAN be used to evaluate a wide spectrum. (Your distinction between learning and achievement eludes me)

    NCLB is about teaching all kids to read and to do math. There certainly are rational arguments for those aspirations.

    My suggestion for accomplishing the aspirations is: apply the commonplace considerations:reliability of effects, time, and cost.

    What are your suggestions after "putting NCLB out of its misery"?

  4. Anonymous12:08 PM

    Mr. Schutz,

    After NCLB is eliminated, Public Schools should be evaluated on a multi-faceted INDEX of the many things a Public school is impelled to do, such as:
    Counseling services (beyond mere scheduling), tutoring, special classes, diverse curriculum, social services rendered, adult school, classes aimed at educating parents on their responsibilities, supplying books and materials to all kids, communicating with families in the community, employing businesses in the community in educational efforts, etc etc etc etc etc

    This would take the place of using, in essence, ONE SIMPLE NUMBER to evaluate a whole, complex school.

    A single critical number is NOT a person, nor is it a school.

    And YOU seem confused about the difference between memorization of rote facts and actual, conceptual, learning.

    Example: 1066-date of the Battle of Hastings.
    Easily memorized, easily forgotten.

    But the real issue is: What significance did the battle have on our history?
    Multiple-choice tests often fail badly in areas
    such as these.

    Conceptual questions are best handled
    in an essay.

    Come on, Mr. Schutz you can't really be confused about that, can you?

    NCLB is a disaster, period.

    If you don't think so, then perhaps you are more worried about your future stock portfolio than the fate of Public Education, no?

    Reforming something as ideologically cynical and toxic as NCLB is akin to reforming Nazism or the KKK philosophy.

    Sorry to go all Godwin's Law on you, but...
    Just how do you DO that?

    I would have to say, with all due respect sir, that if you really have bought-in to all the politically-motivated NCLB claptrap, then I wish all YOUR children to be thoroughly educated in multiple-choice-type thinking and little else.

    That would be wonderful, don't you think?

    Please think harder about what you
    are defending.

    IMO, with all due respect, you are not doing that at this time.


  5. Anonymous12:13 PM

    Well, we are talking past each other Nitko. I agree with everything you say, (ignoring the ad hominum asides you throw in.) My only departure would be to stop short of lumping all the services you list into an index. Each deserves acknowledgment and management.

    Actually, I've worked with others to develop a prototype for how to go about doing this. It's accessible at:


  6. Anonymous3:24 PM

    Mr. Schutz,

    Looking at the Demo-Ad, you appear to be yet another disaster-capitalist profiteer feeding upon the damage done by NCLB.

    I have had much experience with companies such as yours appear to be--Action Learning, LearningFocused, Dataworks, ActiveBoard, etc etc

    I have found most of the products to be "trendy"and of dubious lasting value;It all seems to be just another attempt to mold schools into a business model, AND MAKE A MINT OFF THE TAXPAYER

    (Funny, the American Business Model is struggling right now--Perhaps, it might not be such a good model after all;Perhaps Businesspeople ought to be overseen by Educators!).

    Have you taken any taxpayer dollars yet,
    Mr. Schutz?

    How much?

    I'm sorry,but you just appear to me to be a sympathizer of NCLB because you can profit
    off it.

    It just looks that way to me.

    I still don't feel we are really on the same side as you characterize.

    Please set me straight, and feel free to throw in an ad-hominem or 2.

    I'll be honest--I have no love or sympathy for anyone who sees value in NCLB.