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How NCLB and Test-based Accountability Harm US Public Schools

Updated on August 15, 2012

The Bubble

Inside this ten-year-old bubble, Americans believe that our schools are failing, our teachers are to blame, more tests and homework are necessary, and school choice will save us all. Even though the NCLB force that blew this bubble is fading from the field, our bubble will remain unyielding as the government forces new accountability structures that will hold it in place.

In our bubble, we rely on state tests to tell us everything we need to know about our children's progress and achievements. We don't have to spend any time at the craft stores looking for project supplies, because this bubble has an endless supply of worksheets to keep the kids busy. There are also lots and lots of tests to make sure the kids are learning what they should be.

What many parents do not realize until it is too late, is that our bubble is critically flawed.


The Bubble's First Flaw

Our bubble is based on the premise that one standardized test can accurately measure the achievement of all our many students, who have different backgrounds, learning styles, and learning abilities. The standardized tests used in our overcrowded classrooms are outdated, unreliable and inadequate. Visit FairTest to learn more about the negative effects of these misused tests.

US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has promised our teachers new and improved tests with more open-ended questions. But how will these tests be graded? Dan Rather reported (see video below) that the tests are shipped out-of-state to cramped warehouses where unqualified temps grade the tests in stressful working conditions. That is just a slap in the face to our hard-working students. Rather also pointed out that the testing companies seem to be the only ones benefiting from the tests.

The failure of state tests to accurately measure student achievement is magnified in our special education population. So much time and effort are poured into making sure IDEA students receive the services they need, yet there is little or no accommodation allowed for state tests. Special education students are tested on grade level, rather than on the level they are actually taught and can comprehend. Not only is this unfair and inappropriate for the student, the test results are meaningless.

Who is Evaluating the Evaluators? Video by Dan Rather Reports on HDNet


Desperate Measures?

My son's class will receive a Chick-fil-a lunch party if every student improves his score from last time on the MAP standardized test. Do you think this is wrong?

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The Bubble's Second Flaw

"Teaching to the Test" is a destructive philosophy also ushered in by NCLB, though you will not find this phrase in any school handbook. If schools score poorly on the state test, they will receive sanctions or even be shut down. For teachers, if scores are low, they will not only receive less pay and bad performance reviews, but may even lose jobs. With these high-stakes in place, "teaching" is no longer focused on the student, but on what desperate measures can be taken to get good scores.

For our children, that means more test preparation, more practice-tests, more tests, and more homework. Often replacing the related arts, physical education and recess, it is random facts that are being drilled into their heads only to be spit back out on a piece of paper. So much time and energy is wasted on preparing for the state tests, that there is little time for meaningful lessons that teach critical thinking and other necessary skills. Where are the building blocks? There is no foundation when teachers are required to spend so much time drilling facts.

Case example: The students in my child's fourth grade class were instructed to study for an upcoming Social Studies test every night for one week. A study sheet was sent home listing the facts that the students would need to memorize. The teacher sent parents an email stating that the facts were taken directly from the state standards and would hopefully help prepare the students for the state test. (The state test is four months down the road.) There will also be a pre-test before the real test to give the students more practice. Drill. Drill. Drill.


The Bubble's Third Flaw

There is a very bad word that was spawned in our bubble, and you won't find it in the dictionary. Re-segregation.

When the state standardized test scores indicate that schools are failing, parents demand better. Instead of seeing if the "failing" schools actually need assistance, the response has been school choice and charter schools. The problem is, not everyone can "choice out," because there are limits and lotteries blocking the way. Since school choice and charters usually require parental transportation and extra family participation, lower-income families are less able to fulfill the choice.

In our country, poverty strikes black families more often. That means our "good" schools and charter schools are filling up with higher-income white students, leaving the others behind at the "bad" schools. Lower-income students do tend to score lower on the tests, so then the poor schools that need the most help will face sanctions or be shut down. To avoid the punishment, these poor schools "teach to the test" and drill facts even more, which oppresses these students further. If we separate the rich from the poor, and the white from the black again, the cycle continues and the achievement gap widens.

Case example: My daughter attends a public charter school that is located in an affluent white neighborhood. According to the school's 2011 report card, 119 students were white and 4 were black. According to the US Census, our county has a 30% black population. There are also no black teachers or staff at this school.

This bumper sticker says it all
This bumper sticker says it all | Source

Burst the Bubble

We need to take action to save our public schools. United Opt Out National is a fast-growing group of parents and educators who have banded together, taking weekly actions to end punitive high-stakes testing. Parents Across America and Save Our Schools (SOS) are also large alliances that advocate for fair public education. There are many studies and articles online showing the negative effects of high-stakes standardized testing in our schools. Be informed.

Education is the future for our children and our country. Talk to other parents, teachers and your principals. Make your voice known to both your state and US legislators. See what our presidential candidates have to say about standardized tests and accountability. What can be done to return control of public schools to the local level? If parents don't speak up now for our children, we will have to continue to live in this bubble of self-defeat.


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    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thanks, Teresa. That is one point we have been trying to make to the policy-makers here - that other countries are successful in education and do not have this obsession with punitive high-stakes testing.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Wonderfully informative article. We have the standardized testing here but not the same punitive nature towards individual teachers.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thanks for stopping by, Doc Sonic. If our country can get past the punitive high-stakes testing, I think we will have the time and resources to address local problems. A really good read on this issue is Diane Ravitch's latest book. I think it should be required reading for all policy-makers in education!

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 6 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      One of the most important points in this piece is right at the end - returning control of education to the local level. Yes, yes, yes! I see no indication that the bureacrats in DC know how to educate our children better than our own communities. The federal gov't can help see to it that schools in poorer regions get the resources they need, but there's no need for them to actually be telling schools how to teach.

      Now, having said that - let me say that I also agree with you regarding the shortcomings of standardized testing, but I think that the intended goal of standardized testing is a good one: determining whether or not a student has achieved a certain basic level of education.

      A high school diploma should have some kind of measurable meaning. I think it's fair, for example, for an employer hiring someone with a high school diploma to be able to expect the graduate to have a certain basic level of education. Unfortunately, I know from personal experience that the stories of high-school grads who are functionally illiterate are sometimes true, and that too many college freshmen are taking remedial math classes covering what they should have been taught in high school - this is time that should be spent on college-level studies instead. How do we prevent this from happening? A person who cannot read, write, and perform math at a certain basic level shouldn't be awarded a high-school diploma. To do so renders the diploma itself meaningless. Do we want a high-school diploma to be merely an indication of how much time a student has spent inside a school building, or proof that a certain basic level of education has actually been achieved? I think most of us would choose the latter.

      This is by no means a criticism of teachers (I have 3 in my own family), and I certainly don't have the answers to these questions, but I think that they need to be asked, and discussed. Without good answers to these questions, breaking out of the standardized testing bubble will be very difficult.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Pen names comes in handy ;)

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 6 years ago from Western NC

      Okay, I'm bookmarking this so I can check into that website you mentioned. :) When I'm not teaching anymore, I'll get you that book. :D

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      cclitgirl, you should write a book! In Florida, and soon in my own state, teachers will get pay-for-performance, meaning they will be paid based on state tests scores. Not only is it unfair, who will want to teach these children you speak of? High-performing schools get the reward money. The achievement gap widens.

      I think you would be a much needed voice on unitedoptout(dot)com - parents and teachers working together to raise our voice. We just hit 1000 members tonight.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 6 years ago from Western NC

      ChaplinSpeaks - ya know, I feel like I could write a book on this. (Maybe not right now, haha...) There are so many parents who are wonderful advocates, but still so many who don't know what teachers go through. It's a profession that is approaching a staggering statistic: 75% of all new teachers leave the profession between their third and fifth year because of its grueling requirements, super-long hours, low pay and a lot of abuse. It's incredibly demoralizing that our society is currently attacking teachers for failing schools because every teacher I know personally virtually gives up his or her life for the profession. They work harder than most people I know because they're so busy trying to keep kids from falling through the cracks. Then add under-funding, and lack of support and TESTING (where teachers are routinely reminded publicly about their students' scores) and it's a recipe for disaster. Yes, there are bad teachers, too, and every profession has them. I don't have the answers - at all - but we need a national debate on how teachers and parents can work TOGETHER to get our kids on track.

      I've often thought that schools are little mirrors of society. I don't think it's the schools that are failing so much as the fact that we need to take a closer look at our society and really figure out what our priorities are. I always find it amusing, for example, that when we have snow days, usually athletic events aren't canceled. Or, the fact that a teacher impacts the life of a child for the REST of their lives and makes a wage that's hardly enough to live on. But, a sports star gets paid millions for a game. It is at once an incredibly rewarding and frustrating profession.

      One last thought about testing: I wish people knew how much teachers feel the pressure to have their kids perform well. But - at least in the school district I'm in - teachers can't control for the fact that some students were recently evicted from their homes. Or the fact that a number of them are homeless. Or the fact that they heard gunshots right outside their window. Or the fact that their only meal is lunch - the one they get at school. Teachers are under pressure to make sure these kids perform at grade level or else they risk losing their job - but how can ANYONE perform well on academics when outside of school many students fear for their lives or there is no parent at home to feed them and make sure their homework gets done? They also have to control for the fact that in a class of 20, some have ADHD, others are reading three grade levels behind, others have dyslexia or autism, and still others have emotional problems. Don't get me wrong - EVERY child can learn, EVERY child is special. But when you have to write a separate sort of lesson plan for each child and prove that you're making modifications for them, keep up with all the regular documentation, teach gifted children, and keep everyone entertained for 8 hours it's incredibly exhausting. (Then, many put in another 4-6 hours a day on lesson plans, meeting with counselors, creating Individualized Education Plans, preparing the classroom itself for the next school day, attending in-services and staff meetings, going over observations and the list goes on....) Then there's the kiddo who was horribly abused and you have to keep them from going after the other children with a freshly sharpened pencil or even scissors (yes, this has happened to me). So, yes, on the one hand, teachers can make a difference. On the other hand, if we are to get good teachers and keep them, we need to look at what abuses, challenges and stresses they're contending with and at least pay them where we stop losing them in droves. *sigh* Thanks again for such a great hub and the spark of a wonderful debate. :D

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Hi, cclitgirl

      Thanks for your comment. I think what many parents don't realize is that teachers and principals are aware of the problem, but are not able to speak out due to fear of a backlash. Unfortunately, if we do not speak up now, the backlash will be the privatization of our public schools. What can we do to put the voice of parents back into public school education?

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 6 years ago from Western NC

      WOOHOO! Thank you for writing this. As a teacher, I'm afraid to speak out about this sort of stuff because I don't want a backlash. Thank you for being a voice.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thank you, Merry, for confirming that Re-segregation in our public schools is a reality. I challenge everyone to take a look at population percentages in public charters and schools of choice. We need to fix existing schools, not leave them behind.

    • profile image

      MerryIndy 6 years ago

      Re-segregation. It was called "The only form of legal discrimination left" at a community education meeting in Indianapolis, IN recently.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      The executive producer of Dan Rather Reports on HDNet just gave me permission to use a clip from their video about the way our public school standardized tests are evaluated. It is pretty scary!

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thank you for stopping by, Sandra. Very true that these facts largely exist hidden from parents and other citizens. We need to continue to look into these matters and find a better way to educate our children. It can be done if parents get involved and speak up.

    • profile image

      Sandra 6 years ago

      Thank you for bringing these facts out of the shadows.

      Many of us are very concerned about the longitudinal database, now from birth to the first year out of high school. This is not science fiction. The media is quiet and legislators get by with silence. I hope you will keep writing on this topic.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina


      Thank you so much for your testimony. One reason this problem remains "hidden" is because educators who are currently employeed have to keep quiet in fear of their jobs. I hope more people like you will come forward to tell it like it is!

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 6 years ago from New Jersey

      You bring up so many good points about why standardized tests are ruining schools systems, our students' education, and very good potential careers for educators. I am so glad I no longer teach high school for this reason: more and more I had to dedicate time to "prepping" them for tests. When I was student teaching I saw the worst outcome of all the pressure of a school doing well as a whole on the test: one of my coordinating teacher was also the department chair and would actually open the packet in advance to help prepare the students better. How horrid!

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 6 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thank you so much, parentsreview!

    • parentsreview profile image

      parentsreview 6 years ago from Lansdowne, PA

      This is awesome. I couldn't agree more. Great article!


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