Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
The No Child Left Behind Act, a federal law designed to ensure that all children can read and do math proficiently by 2014, comes up for renewal in Congress next year. Debate over its future will center on whether the law is doing enough to improve education across America and to help children succeed in school.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said recently that she is happy with the law as it is. "I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: it's 99 percent pure or something," Spellings told reporters. "There's not much needed in the way of change."
But questions have arisen about the accuracy of student proficiency testing used to chart performance under No Child Left Behind, and about whether math and reading scores — even if they are accurate — should be used as the full measure of school progress under the law. Schools whose students fail to hit math and reading proficiency targets set by the states in these two subject areas face sanctions or even outright takeovers.
As the Washington Post reported Sept. 3, many states — which develop their own proficiency tests — set proficiency levels in reading and math without any relationship to standards in other states or to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The NAEP, a test known as "the nation's report card," tests representative groups of students in certain subject areas to chart long-term educational trends.
The Post reported, for example, that in Maryland 82 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or better in reading on the state's test — while only 32 percent of fourth-graders in Maryland scored proficient or above on the NAEP. The Post also reported a similar gap in Virginia — 86 percent of fourth-graders proficient or better in reading on the state test, compared with just 37 percent on the NAEP.
In contrast, South Carolina's tests are more difficult than NAEP. As a result, only 36 percent of fourth-grade students scored proficient or better in reading on the South Carolina test, compared with 57 percent on the NAEP.
When each state is allowed to set its own standard, measuring compliance with the No Child Left Behind law and comparing performance between states becomes virtually impossible. In fact, some states changed their proficiency levels early on so that more students appear proficient, making it easier for the states to meet No Child Left Behind performance targets
Beyond this, recent studies have shown that schools are spending less time teaching social studies, the arts and physical fitness — and more time teaching reading and math — at least in part in response to No Child Left Behind.
Besides the impact of shrinking the curriculum down, why should reading and math proficiency — certainly of critical importance — be the sole measures of how well students are doing in school and how well schools are teaching? Shouldn't schools be working to see that no child is left behind in writing, social studies, science, computer skills, art, music, and physical fitness as well?
While No Child Left Behind requires annual math and reading tests for children from 3rd through 8th grade and in one year of high school, the only other testing required under the law is for science exams in three years of school — but the science scores do not count in a school's report card. Consequently, the only pressure on schools to improve student performance under the law involves math and reading.
But other subjects are important. For example, writing and verbal communication skills have been cited repeatedly by the business sector as necessary for success in the workplace and as being seriously lacking in recent graduates. Music and art are pathways to careers for many students, and they enrich the educational experience for the whole school.
And at a time when poor physical fitness is contributing to record obesity rates and leading to serious health problems for millions of Americans, teaching students the need for exercise in their lives is more important than ever. Not only do athletics help to engage students in school, but participation in sports is important for developing healthy minds and bodies.
Giving all these subjects greater emphasis in the curriculum and in the way school performance is measured should help develop well-rounded children prepared to deal with the important decisions they will face as adults at work, at home and in civic life.
It seems reasonable that if we continue the policy of holding schools accountable, we need to broaden the meaning of school quality to include more of the things that really matter to students, parents and society.
Labeling a school a success or failure based solely on the basis of reading and math test scores reflects a failure of imagination. It downgrades the importance of other subjects and minimizes the value of students' real accomplishments. Imposing sanctions based on such a limited view of the educational landscape is shortsighted.
Furthermore, testing is not the only way to indicate whether students have mastered academic skills.
Calculating the number of semesters required for students learning English as a second language to become proficient would tell us how well the schools serve the needs of an often growing proportion of students.
Assessing the proportion of students who are properly identified for special education services and who promptly receive those services would add to our understanding of the responsiveness of a school to children's needs. So would tracking the ability of schools to provide additional services to students deemed at risk of failing.
Counting the percentages of students in high school who complete college-preparatory courses or who participate in challenging Advanced Placement classes would also add a good deal to our understanding of a schools' overall performance.
The percentage of students going to college is another good indicator of school performance. While graduation rates are part of the measurements tallied by No Child Left Behind, college admission rates are not.
The No Child Left Behind law focuses on a very narrow set of outcomes, and ignores many elements that students and their families find satisfying, challenging and motivating about their schools. An improved No Child Left Behind Act ought to focus on more than standardized tests in reading and math to get a real picture of how well students are being prepared for life.
Brian Stecher is a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Washingtonpost.com on September 13, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.