Although the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 is the law of the land, it’s clear that something is broken. Now, in a dramatic new shift, the federal government is allowing some states to try new strategies in an effort to raise educational standards. However, these dramatic breaks with the past bring their own controversy.
In Illinois, for example, students of different ethnic groups and social backgrounds (such as non-English speakers or those living in poverty) will be judged by unique, often lower, standards of achievement. That means achievement goals will be lower for Hispanics and African-Americans than Whites, and Whites less than Asians, the highest ranking group on standardized testing in the state.
Will some simply be left behind?
Of course, parents and civil rights groups are worried about this complex new approach to measuring student achievement and the schools their children will attend. These new rules make it more challenging for parents and others to compare how well schools are doing with each other. Many also worry that lowering expectations for minority students is sending the wrong message to students and the community.
In fact, in at least one Illinois high school, the opposite tactic is being tried. According to the Chicago Tribune, at Morton East High School, more children are being funneled into advanced placement (AP) classes, in an effort to “challenge kids and boost achievement.” Noted the local math teacher, “You push them, and they respond.”
No simple answers
However, it’s clear that there are no simple answers to the dilemma of raising achievement standards. NCLB has been in force for more than a decade with expectations that 100 percent of children would pass state achievement tests, but that hasn’t come to pass. Schools are considered failures when too many children miss testing expectations, and in 2013 in Illinois, a staggering 85 percent of schools received this “failing” mark.
Congress has agreed that NCLB needs to be revamped, but can’t figure out how. As a result, the Obama Administration has been granting individual states exemptions from certain portions of the law in an effort to try new tactics. Lest anyone think the President is giving Illinois (his home state) any special treatment, Illinois is one of the last states to receive such an exemption, in part due to wrangling over teacher evaluations.
Growth vs. proficiency
Some (including Illinois state educators) laud the attempt to help children achieve better results based on where they are currently testing academically, with realistic, achievable goals adapted to different student groups. And those schools who make significant strides (“reward schools”) will be recognized.
However, not everything about the change is positive. For example, some requisite programs, including mandatory tutoring for those who are failing, will no longer be required. In addition, not everyone is happy with the new focus on “growth.” Suggest some parents, growth is important, but “actual proficiency is critical.”