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Happy (Belated) Birthday NCLB! (Part 3)

This month marks the eighth anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation has redefined education in America and it’s worth looking back now at the ways NCLB has done so. I started my reflection last week by saying that for all it’s faults NCLB has changed education for the better by putting the achievement gap at the center of the education debate.

Unfortunately the theory of accountability for everyone has had some very detrimental practical effects for high-need students and their teachers. On Friday I discussed the problems with standardized testing. But while the debate over standardized testing is somewhat abstract, the creation of a new testing-centered culture, particularly in high need schools is indisputable.

You might argue that creating a high-stakes environment based around testing is essential for these failing schools. But that assumes that 1) these schools have been failing mainly because a lack of effort and 2) the high-stakes culture benefits the students. Both assumptions are false, but still they allow the general degredation of public schools and the educators who work in them.

It is important to understand the actual consequences of the NCLB testing culture. Namely the reallocation of energy and resources toward test prep materials, test prep instruction and test prep professional development. This is especially egregious during a time of economic downturn when principals are being told to “do more with less.” The result is that schools like my current and former workplace no longer have after-school arts and sports programs but still have the latest test prep books.

As for the day-to-day effects, I can attest personally that the testing culture eventually subsumes all other aspects of teaching — more and more so as the test day approaches. Starting this week my school is beginning its test “blitzing,” one period each day of math or ELA test prep. Something inevitably takes a back seat in this case, whether it’s social studies, science or just an extra 45 minutes of the math or reader’s workshop.

Then you have to take into account the lowest performing students and how test prep affects them. I have three students taking the students who are reading at a kindergarten level. Getting them to a third-grade level by April would be nothing short of a miracle. But schools like mine can’t afford to let anyone fail. So in the interest of time students like these are given the shortcuts to get through the test in place of reading interventions that might better help these students over the long term. If they do manage to pass, they’ll move forward another grade, only to face a bigger deficit the next year.

Perhaps worst, the testing culture trickles down from the testing grades (3rd and up) to the lower grades. In many schools, even though these kids aren’t yet testing, test prep is still encroaching on more worthwhile instruction. Too many schools are investing energy in turning kids into test-takers at an earlier and earlier age, rather than helping them to be good readers and critical thinkers (abilities that make a student a natural test-taker). In the worst case, there are kindergarteners taking standardized tests, a trend some studies (click the link to the Alliance for Childhood) have linked to depression, poor self-esteem and antisocial behaviors later on.

I understand there needs to be a system of accountability. There needs to be a way to measure efforts to close the achievement gap. But the way testing has permeated school cultures, has too often come at the expense of approaches to education that would benefit students beyond standardized tests and outside the classroom.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.