When he thinks about the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Jim Testerman of the Pennsylvania State Education Association is reminded of a statement attributed to Albert Einstein.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Erika Thomason holds her daughter, Alai' Zjah, while she fills out paperwork and signs up her son, Maurice Nelson, 3, for Pittsburgh Public Schools' early childhood education program.
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From reading to algebra, everything in school is starting earlier
Math and reading
No Child Left Behind has altered the face of education
Performance data driving education now
Education booms into an $850 billion enterprise
Zero tolerance makes discipline more severe, involves the courts
Snacks, soft drinks banished as schools focus on nutrition
Lines blur between nonprofit and for-profit schools
Back to school in the region:
West: New technology, teachers greet pupils
North: It's a brand new year
South: Pupils return to healthier food, online learning
"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
NCLB, rolled out in 2002, has changed the face of the American education system. States have restructured curriculums, increased training requirements for teachers and implemented standardized tests, all to boost reading and math performance as required by the law.
Studies have offered conflicting assessments of NCLB's effectiveness, however, with some portraying recent years' test scores as stagnant or so mixed as to defy generalization. Critics claim that the focus on reading and math has taken time away from other important subjects and that current tests are a high-pressure but incomplete measure of student achievement.
Mr. Testerman, PSEA vice president, said it's one thing to ask students a test question about the steps of the scientific method and another to have them demonstrate their knowledge by organizing and performing an experiment.
"Now that's an authentic assessment you can't do with a high-stakes test taken on a single day," he said.
Next to the Iraq war, NCLB may be President Bush's most controversial and far-reaching initiative. With Congress set to consider reauthorization next year, supporters and critics alike are lining up to propose changes.
Accountability is NCLB's defining feature.
"Supporters of the practice of high-stakes testing believe that the quality of American education can be vastly improved by introducing a system of rewards and sanctions for students' academic performance," researchers at Arizona State University's Education Policy Studies Laboratory said in a September 2005 report condemning the practice.
The researchers called for a moratorium on such testing, saying it encourages students to drop out of school and puts the greatest pressure on minority students in low-performing schools.
The national goal is 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014, with districts facing intermediate proficiency targets along the way. With failure comes consequences, ranging from letting students transfer from low-performing schools to elimination of locally elected school boards.
"I think it's a nice goal, but it's unrealistic. Nobody's going to be 100 percent at anything," said Linda Clautti, chief executive officer of Northside Urban Pathways Charter School, Downtown.
School districts have expanded early childhood programs, which teach building blocks of reading and math, to prepare students for elementary school.
Pittsburgh Public Schools this school year will serve 2,100 students, 66 more than it did in 2005-06, in pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs. The district converted all of its half-day programs to full-day and turned some closed school buildings into early childhood centers.
"We expand every year," said Carol Barone-Martin, the district's senior program officer for early-childhood education.
School districts have aligned instruction more closely to what's being taught on state tests. They put in place standardized curriculums, increased instruction in reading and math and reorganized courses to make sure students see material in class before they see it on state tests.
The Pittsburgh school district, which has experienced four years of low test scores, has adopted all of those approaches.
The district on Aug. 21 opened eight accelerated learning academies, many of them in disadvantaged neighborhoods, with a longer school day, an extended school year and increased class time for literacy and math.
Each day, the schools will provide 2 1/2 hours of highly structured literacy instruction -- 30 minutes of skills development and an hour each of reading and writing -- to students in kindergarten through grade three. Ninety-minute daily "ramp-up" courses will be provided to students performing two or more years below grade level.
The district's new standardized curriculum for grades six through 12 is designed to expose students to material deemed important by the state. Every six weeks, the district will give students tests -- written in the style of the state test -- to see whether they're grasping the material.
The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that works to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps, said NCLB's standards, testing requirements, accountability and teacher-quality requirements all are important.
"I think the first thing to talk about, and probably the most important thing, is that NCLB has brought into focus the gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from their peers like never before," said Daria Hall, senior policy analyst for the trust.
"We now know how well all groups of students in a particular school district or state are achieving, and we have now said it is the responsibility of every school, every district and every state to serve all students well. This is a big change from the past, when we looked only at school averages, which led us to say schools were doing fine when some groups of students were doing very well and others were doing very poorly."
Unfortunately, she said, the federal government has been slow to implement a provision of the law requiring that poor and minority students have no more than a proportional share of less-experienced, less-qualified teachers.
In releasing a study on NCLB in March, the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy said NCLB's strengths included high expectations for all students and use of test data to fine-tune teaching.
But it noted those benefits have come at some cost.
To understand the impact of NCLB, the center surveyed education officials in every state, surveyed 299 school districts and performed case studies on 42 schools in 38 districts. The center said 71 percent of districts reduced time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and math.
Before NCLB, not all states had standardized tests or tested students as frequently as they do now, said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of American Association of School Administrators. "What nobody had was a score-keeping system," he said.
NCLB keeps score with the designation known as "adequate yearly progress" or "AYP."
If schools and districts meet attendance, test-participation and test-score goals, they make "AYP" for the year -- and breathe a sigh of relief. If schools and districts miss the targets, they move a step closer to sanctions.
While NCLB has focused all states on reading and math, the law hasn't standardized testing across the states. As a result, making AYP can be a tougher goal in one state than another.
"In Pennsylvania, the bar has been set very high for what it means to be proficient," Mr. Testerman said.
He and Mr. Hunter said questions have arisen about the accuracy of state tests, about a policy in some states allowing students to retest and about forcing some special-education students to take the tests when the federal special-education law requires that these students learn at their own pace.
Some critics say the law is particularly hard on urban school districts, which have many schools and sub-groups of students to move to proficiency, and small rural school districts, where one or two low-performing children can affect NCLB compliance.
The Center on Education Policy estimated that 16 percent of all schools and 24 percent of all school districts did not make AYP for 2004-05. It said about 3 percent of schools were experiencing NCLB's most radical sanctions.
The center called its study the most comprehensive ever conducted on NCLB's impact. The report illustrated what some researchers have called "dueling test results."
The center said 78 percent of districts reported an increase in achievement from 2004 to 2005, that 35 states reported gains in reading during that period and that 36 states reported gains in math. It said most states and districts reported that achievement gaps between races and economic groups had narrowed or remained the same.
"Our case studies revealed a more mixed and complex view of achievement than our surveys, with trends fluctuating by year or varying by grade to the point that it is difficult to say whether achievement is rising or falling," the center said. Similarly, case studies showed that achievement gap trends were less clear-cut than schools and districts reported in surveys.
Adding to the uncertainty, National Assessment of Educational Progress, based on tests given to a representative sampling of students, showed flat reading scores and little gain in math from 2002 to 2005. The Education Trust and U.S. Education Department said longer-term NAEP assessments give a clearer picture of NCLB's impact.
"More progress was made by 9-year-olds in reading in the last five years than in the previous 28 years combined," the department says on its Web site at www.ed.gov. "Achievement gaps in reading and math between white and African American 9-year-olds and between white and Hispanic 9-year-olds are at an all-time low."
Among other changes, the Center on Education Policy recommended that the federal government provide more money to implement the law and send the message that subjects besides reading and math remain important.
Others have suggested that the country move to a longitudinal analysis of test scores; that is, measure the proficiency of a class from one year to the next and drop the traditional approach of comparing one year's third-grade scores against third-grade scores of the preceding year. Proponents say the change would yield a better picture of whether more students are becoming proficient.
Ms. Clautti, of Northside Urban Pathways, said she supports NCLB because it re-energized the education system. "People were too complacent."
Joe Smydo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548.