By KATHLEEN RONAYNE
When No Child Left Behind passed with bipartisan support from Congress in 2001, it promised a new system of accountability that would raise academic expectations and bring all students – rich, poor, black, white, mentally or physically disabled, limited English speakers – to the same level of achievement.
But more than a decade later, as the state is poised to receive a waiver from parts of the law, New Hampshire educators say it instead created a system that encouraged “teaching to the test,” ignored student growth and set an impossible deadline of 100 percent proficiency in math and English by 2014.
“You would never say to a doctor every patient that you have has to be 100 percent healthy. That would be ridiculous,” said Kristen Halverson, a Merrimack Valley High School English teacher. “There came a time when we realized, hey, this is just not going to be doable.”
The law required each state to develop uniform standards in reading and math and to create standardized tests based on them; in New Hampshire, it was the New England Common Assessment Program. Each state had to set its own testing benchmarks, with “proficient” being the highest. Schools had to gather testing data on the whole school population as well as specific groups: economically disadvantaged, racial or ethnic groups, students with disabilities and those who spoke limited English.
Each year, a higher percentage of students from the whole and within each group had to score “proficient.” By 2014, all students in all groups were supposed to hit that mark. If any one group of students missed the mark each year, the whole school was failed. And if a school failed two years in a row, it faced consequences that escalated each consecutive year.
Since the standards got continuously higher and the law didn’t account for growth, more and more schools in New Hampshire joined the failing list each year. Without the waiver, about 75 percent of the state’s schools would be labeled as failing next year. With the waiver, the state has developed a new system that focuses more attention on the schools struggling the most and measures success in student growth over a period of years.
With so much riding on test scores, critics of the law say it encouraged educators to teach to the test.
“It’s taken teachers from being a master educator concerned with learning to . . . a test prep person, a test coach person, and those roles are fundamentally different,” said Mark Joyce, president of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.
In elementary schools in particular, where one person usually teaches every subject, some teachers narrowed the curriculum to put a greater emphasis on reading and math, said Scott McGilvray, president of the state’s chapter of the National Education Association, a teachers union.
“Specifically I think we stepped away from a lot of science and social studies and put the emphasis on reading, English and mathematics.”
Further, the law didn’t give any credit to improving scores if the scores didn’t hit the achievement mark. Since the standards rose each year, failing students would have more ground to make up to get back on track.
One year at Merrimack Valley High School, for example, the special education students did not meet proficiency. The school targeted interventions for those students, and the next year they passed. But economically disadvantaged students failed that same year. Unlike special needs students, teachers couldn’t target those students for improvement because their economic status is measured by free and reduced lunch, which is private information.
Not only did that make intervention harder, but the district was labeled as failing because at least one group didn’t pass for two straight years. The improvement among special education students had no impact on the school’s status.
“You just sit there afterward and you go, okay, we put all this effort and energy in, which was appropriate, we responded,” said Merrimack Valley High Principal Mike Jette. “Then you get a surprise attack.”
Expecting every single student to reach the same benchmark regardless of his or her situation just isn’t realistic, critics say. Teachers of disabled students who physically can’t take the test, for example, have to demonstrate their students understand the material in other ways, said Mike Macri, a special education teacher at Broken Ground School and president of the district’s teachers union, the Concord Education Association. Three years ago the state started requiring video assessments, mandating 12 different videos up to eight minutes showing the child mastering the standard.
For teachers dealing with a number of special needs students, following those test requirements is a time-consuming task that takes away from other critical parts of the school day, Macri said.
As schools failed, they faced penalties that were phased in over time. Early penalties required schools to use their Title 1 funding to create improvement plans, provide supplemental education services such as private tutoring, and accommodate students who wanted to attend a different district school. Persistently failing schools were required to implement overhauls that could include firing principals, firing the majority of teachers or, in the worst-case scenario, closing down schools. The state never had to close a school under this law.
Above all, critics say, the punitive nature of the system lowered community confidence and teacher morale.
“Assuming that because I label you a failure now you’re going to become more motivated to become better at the job you do, after a while that turns people off,” McGilvray said.
A new focus
The expectations that all students could succeed regardless of background is one positive effect of No Child Left Behind and is something that will continue under the waiver. Focusing on subgroups challenged educators not to accept lower standards for certain populations, Jette said.
“I think on some level schools kind of asked for this intervention,” Jette said. “There were some kids that were slipping through the cracks, and not all kids (were) being held to high standards.”
The law also emphasized using testing and other data to find problem areas. After the first year of testing, for example, Merrimack Valley saw low marks in writing, which prompted a revamping of the writing curriculum across all subjects.
At Pittsfield Middle/High School, the greater focus on data helped target areas for intervention as part of a turnaround effort, said Pittsfield Superintendent John Freeman. Under the law, Pittsfield Middle/High School received a designation of “persistently low achieving,” among a small pool of the state’s districts that struggled most. Other districts, such as Franklin, received federal School Improvement Grants that imposed some of the law’s turnaround principles of removing principals and restructuring schools.
It also brought in funding for professional development that was available for all teachers. At Pittsfield, teachers across all subjects, including science and physical education, are required to include English and math standards in their curriculum. The middle/high school has now developed a long-term plan with benchmarks for student success beyond reading and math and into areas such as discipline. Although the achievement goals set by No Child Left Behind were faulty, Freeman said, the new focus on data and accountability had a positive effect on schools.
“In the end it strengthened the teachers to do their job, to better do their job,” he said.
The next step
In its application for a waiver, the state Department of Education had to create its own system for measuring student achievement and aiding struggling schools.
The state expects to receive the waiver though it hasn’t officially been notified yet. Officials caution that the proposal could include caveats. Not counting New Hampshire, 37 other states have received waivers from certain provisions of the law.
Under the waiver, the lowest 15 percent of schools would be targeted with resources and support from the state to raise student achievement. They would be labeled “priority” or “focus” instead of “failing” or “in need of improvement.” Student growth will be a main factor in determining achievement, and subgroups of students will still be evaluated.
Several bills have also been introduced in Congress to reauthorize the law, which was originally up for renewal in 2007. Congress failed to act then and has failed to act every year since. If a new law was passed, it would override the waivers.
Among area educators, the hope is that the new system will give schools and teachers the support to improve student achievement without the pressure of meeting unattainable goals.
“I know we are supportive of the waiver,” said Joyce, of the administrators association. “It fundamentally changes from a punishment system to a support system.”