Researchers’ Assessment of NCLB Shows Need for Improvement

With the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act looming on the horizon this year, the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles (CRP/PDC) at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies recently completed a collection of essays containing several critiques of the law as well as proscriptions for change.

CRP/PDC K-12 senior researcher Gail L. Sunderman edited the 280-page book, titled Holding NCLB Accountable: Achieving Accountability, Equity, and School Reform, which was published by Corwin Press.

“We not only looked at the problems with No Child Left Behind, but we came up with ways to make it better,” says Sunderman, the project director on a five-year CRP/PDC study examining implementation of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and the co-author of NCLB Meets School Realities: Lessons from the Field. “It’s time to reauthorize the bill, so we kind of geared the book toward coming up with research-based ideas of what needs to be addressed and what needs to be done to improve the law.”

The essays were written by several noted education scholars, including Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond; Robert Linn of the University of Colorado; Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters; Boston College’s Walter Haney; Goodwin Liu of the University of California, Berkeley; and Russell Rumberger of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The collection analyzes the law’s accountability and assessment system, the capacities of states to implement the law, and the impact of school reform.

Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz asserts that the accountability system is not research based.

“We know far too little about how to hold schools accountable for improving student performance,” says the testing expert.

Jaekyung Lee, an associate professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, compared the nation’s report card – the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – to state assessment results. He found that, since the implementation of the law in 2001, federal accountability measures have not improved educational levels and narrowed achievement disparities.

“Based on the NAEP, there are no systemic indications of improving the average achievement and narrowing the gap after NCLB,” Lee says.

Three researchers from Harvard – Michael Kieffer, Nonie Lesaux and Catherine Snow – revealed what needs to be done in terms of adequately assessing English-language learners. And Mindy Kornhaber of Pennsylvania State University described how to develop a system of multiple measures.

“What we have now basically relies on standardized assessment,” Sunderman says.

In terms of school reform, the researchers found that many of the law’s measures – such as the definition of highly qualified teachers, the design of testing and accountability regulations, and the reliance on mandates – actually retard school reform and have made it even more difficult for high schools serving low-income students to do their jobs.

In the section on the capacity of states to implement the law, Sunderman and CRP/PDC co-director Gary Orfield wrote in a chapter together about how states are responding to problems they are having due to their limitations, and University of California, Berkeley’s Heinrich Mintrop looked at the ability of states to intervene in low-performing schools.

“He finds that states are able to intervene in about 2 to 4 percent of the total number of schools in a state,” Sunderman says. “And, if you compare that to the percentage of schools being identified as low performing under the No Child Left Behind Act, there are a lot more.”

Some of the proscriptions that the researchers presented include: the creation of a fair accountability system that informs the goals of students and improves instruction; the adequate support of low-performing schools and districts; and the complementing of in-school reform in low-income schools with out-of-school reform of housing, poverty, and health care.

Holding NCLB Accountable was funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

The reauthorization of the law may be delayed until after the 2008 presidential election, Sunderman says.

“If it is stalled, and we have a new administration,” she says, “then it’s going to be really interesting to see what its priorities will be.”

–Ibram Rogers

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