Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Megan Olivia Hall, Pioneer Press, March 25, 2015
Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days. But the compelling arguments for putting an end to No Child Left Behind — or as we like to call it, “No Child Left Untested” — seem to be bringing the two sides together. At least that’s the message delivered by congressional leaders who say that changing the federal education law is a top priority.
But the devil is in the details, and many who want to change the failed law are unwilling to end the barrage of high-stakes standardized tests. They call it “accountability.” But here’s the thing: If No Child Left Behind has taught us anything, it’s that testing does nothing to improve the quality of a child’s education. Nor has it done anything to close the achievement gap that exists between affluent and high-poverty children.
To the contrary, No Child Left Behind has allowed the joyful process of learning to be supplanted by tedious test preparation. It strips our children of valuable learning time and it prevents teachers from connecting one-on-one with their students.
The high-stakes testing that is at the heart of No Child Left Behind has had a particularly devastating impact on students most in need of help. Rather than guaranteeing resources to help struggling students catch up, research shows that the law actually increases the risk that a student will drop out.
If we’re serious about ensuring all of our students have equal educational opportunity, as well as the tools and time to learn, we have to get back to what this federal law was intended to do in the first place.
Here’s a hint — it had nothing to do with testing.
When Congress enacted the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act nearly 50 years ago, the federal role was limited but clear: ensuring equal opportunity. The act provided federal resources for states to level the playing field between schools in wealthy and poor districts. It was meant to ensure all students had access to a great public school education. But that’s not what has happened with the law.
The chances your child has for success should not depend on living in the right ZIP code. Students are depending on Congress to get it right this time, and the best way for them to do that is to actually listen (really listen) to educators and parents about what’s needed. Our students must have the opportunity to go as far as their talents and hard work allow, and our public education system must foster these talents.
Teachers aren’t afraid of tests; we invented them. But there’s so much more to accountability than filling in a bubble. We need to look at everything happening in that school, like a dashboard of indicators. We need to ask — and have answers — to questions like: How many fine arts classes or advanced courses like AP classes are offered by the school? How often do students have physical education? Does the school have fully qualified teachers and support personnel like nurses and counselors? These are tangible things we can actually measure, and they’re quality indicators for any given school.
A dashboard would be a mechanism for publicizing which schools get all the good stuff. This is an important first step for fulfilling America’s promise of equal opportunity. We need to show that all types of students in all different ZIP codes should have access to these critical resources. And we can’t collect this information for just a couple of subjects or a few grades. We must start at preschool and measure the entire system.
Our students do not need another high-stakes standardized test. What our students need — what they need us to do — is to hold everyone accountable for ensuring opportunity for all students, just as Congress promised 50 years ago.
That’s why we believe Gov. Mark Dayton is picking the right fight by calling for a reduction in high-stakes standardized testing. He understands there is more to a quality public education that prepares students for successful lives than simply knowing how to fill in bubbles on a test. Fewer tests and more educational opportunity is the common sense and right approach for our students. While Gov. Dayton is willing to challenge the status quo to make that happen, he could use a partner in Washington to join his fight. We encourage Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Kline to use their positions on their respective Education committees to make sure Congress gets ESEA right this time.
A reauthorization of the federal education law is an opportunity to set a new vision of shared responsibility for a public education system that promotes opportunity, equity and excellence for all students. Let’s get it right.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, 1989 Utah Teacher of the Year, is president of the National Education Association. Megan Olivia Hall, 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, is a teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools.