It has now been nine years since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was enacted, symbolizing a bipartisan commitment across the executive and legislative branches to standards-based educational reform.
Though the Bush administration under which NCLB was passed is no longer in office, President Obama’s education policy has not represented a substantive break with the ideals championed in the law.
In particular, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has earned praise for his commitment to reforming education through a combination of technological advancement, strict standards and performance-based incentives.
Though standardized testing has long been an integral part of American education, the passing of NCLB has shifted the discussion away from the merits of standardized testing as an institution to how best to utilize it in our schools.
In that spirit, Secretary Duncan recently announced the rollout of a new battery of tests to be used by the 2014-15 school year, intending to incorporate the latest in technological improvements as well as new methods of examining students, such as performance-based tasks.
The idea is to computerize standardized testing and administer it at several times throughout the school year, thus giving teachers faster feedback about what students have learned and what material may need some review.
Admirable goals, to be sure, and by setting aside a few hundred million dollars from an existing program (Secretary Duncan’s pet “Race to the Top” competition), the government has ensured the new tests will not represent an undue fiscal burden, especially as due to the structure of the United States Constitution. The government can do little more than encourage states to implement policy through financial incentives.
Yet there are several problems with this major new drive in standardized testing. Though it is difficult to argue with widening the use of technology in the classroom, the fact remains that funding disparities continue to make equal availability of technology a hypothesis rather than a reality.
Without a major commitment to improving the educational infrastructure of many schools across the country, administering these tests will be difficult for many districts. Secretary Duncan’s platform has done little to alleviate this problem, placing the burden instead on districts themselves to compete for the Department’s grant money.
Secondly, the emphasis on repeated administration of standardized tests through elementary, middle and high schools, when used as the chief qualifier in determining how much aid each school receives, has already resulted in some of the most underhanded record-keeping tactics in educational history — from school administrators driving down the number of “official” drop outs to instructors hiding the worst of the school’s test scores — all in the name of retaining funding.
Though such efforts have been in many cases the last resort of negligent officials trying to cover their oversights a bit late, it is undeniable that the ubiquitousness of a standards-based culture has raised the incidence of such tricks.
Thirdly, once again, this culture of standards-based education has resulted in relatively little discussion of actual standardized testing methods, with whatever method deemed the most modern earning a quick seal of approval from the new class of educational reformers.
The substantive policy debate, due to the network of monetary incentives and penalties created under NCLB, has shifted to discussions of frequency — which so far has been unidirectional — and how best to administer exams in order to ensure students meet basic standards.
In short, this new initiative comes without discussion or question at a time when the negative impacts of NCLB-based educational reform are becoming apparent.
It intends to solve a wide range of problems with a single method, though it is a method improved to take account of new advancements in both technology and philosophy, and in a field where there are no real panaceas.
Morales is a member of the class of 2011.