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Published January 13 2012

Educators ready to put No Child Left Behind behind them

MOORHEAD – The data was eye-opening, the focus on accountability was laudable – and the name ­wasn’t bad either. But local educators are ready to put much of the rest of the No Child Left Behind federal education law behind them.

The consensus wish list for reform: Adopt a model that measures student growth, ditch the punitive measures that label schools as failures and empower states to develop effective local solutions.

The 10-year-old law is expected to go before Congress for a major overhaul this year. A draft has already passed the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee with bipartisan support, and the House Education Committee is weighing its own measures.

There’s broad consensus that the current law has nudged schools toward paying better attention to individual student achievement and put the spotlight on students who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

“It really put an emphasis on every student,” said Lynne Kovash, superintendent of Moorhead Area Public Schools. “Previously, we would look at the average of all students in Moorhead, and Moorhead always looked like things were just great and our students were above average.”

Under the current law, schools are accountable for the achievement of students in every demographic subgroup and penalized if those subgroups don’t make grade level.

Educators say the No Child Left Behind definition of success is too narrow. Even students who make strong progress over the course of the year are scored as failures if they don’t test on grade level.

Karen Taylor, a language arts teacher at Horizon Middle School in Moorhead, said that label is neither helpful nor accurate.

“If I have a student who comes in who’s reading at the beginning of the year at a third-grade level, and that student works really hard and makes tremendous gains over the course of the year and makes it to a sixth-grade reading level, in my mind that’s a success,” she said.

She said the current system can make struggling students feel like chronic failures and eventually poison their attitudes toward school.

Rick Buresh, superintendent of Fargo public schools, said the current system also penalizes schools unfairly for failing to bring special education students and English Language Learners – students who are by definition behind their peers – up to grade level.

He said trying to bring up scores in those groups produces a frustrating cycle: As special education and ELL students improve academically, they’re removed from those groups, so the groups’ scores remain low.

“It’s kind of a self-defeating system, self-perpetuating system, from which there is no escape,” Buresh said.

The No Child Left Behind testing system has also drawn fire for its timing. Tests are typically administered toward the end of the school year, and results often are not available until the school year is over, making it difficult to draw meaningful comparisons from the data or make adjustments midstream.

That doesn’t make for useful data, said Sen. Al Franken, a key architect of the legislation that passed the Senate Education Committee last fall.

“A number of principals and teachers that I talked to called them (the tests) autopsies,” the Minnesota Democrat said in a phone interview.

As a remedy, Franken pushed for the new legislation to allow states to measure achievement by growth. Minnesota, for example, could test students at the beginning of the year, and again at the end. States could also use computer adaptive tests that better measure the abilities of students who are above and below grade level, rather than simply measuring who clears the bar and who ­doesn’t.

Taylor, the Moorhead teacher, said tests provide a limited picture of what students can do, especially for students who don’t test well.

“Where do they measure creativity? Where do they measure collaborative work when we’re not even supposed to allow students to talk during testing?” she said. “I think we need to broaden our scope of what an acceptable assessment is.”

David Flowers, superintendent of West Fargo Public Schools, agrees.

“If we truly value 21st-century skills, we should invest in how to measure creativity and problem-solving,” he said. “What gets measured is what gets done.”

The new bill would also do away with yearly progress standards and focus penalties on the bottom 5 percent of schools – a move praised by those who find the current law overly harsh.

“Let’s get away from the idea of labeling schools as failing and thinking that that’s going to turn things around,” said Dakota Draper, president of the North Dakota Education Association, the state’s teachers union. “It’s really a disservice to the people that work in those schools.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502