As far as U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D) is concerned, No Child Left Behind is in need of radical restructuring.
“The only thing I liked about it was the name,” the Minnesota Democrat said during a visit to the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District on Thursday. “But that was the only thing we weren't doing—measuring every child’s growth.”
Franken pitched a sweeping overhaul to No Child Left Behind to teachers and students gathered at Burnsville Alternative High School: A proposed amendment to No Child Left Behind that would cut the nationwide testing system know as Annual Yearly Progress assessments. When No Child formally debuted in 2001, the Bush Administration had envisioned those assessments as a means of rating the effectiveness of schools and teachers.
In fall of 2011, the amendment recently passed the Senate’s education committee. The measure will soon go before all members of the senate.
“(The amendment) was bipartisan, which I felt very good about,” Franken said. “As far as the Republicans go, I'd say we agree 90 percent on what's wrong, and 70 percent agreement on how to fix it. This is a major victory.”
Thursday, Burnsville and Eagan teachers criticized the annual assessments as arbitrary, unfair, inaccurate and punitive. Under the current system, federal funding is tied to performance on the exam: Schools that score well get more, while underperforming schools face financial penalties and other sanctions.
Independent School District 191 has not escaped unscathed—a common story in Minnesota where nearly half of all schools failed the most recent assessment. On a whole, the district has failed AYP each year since 2007. According to 2011's AYP results, 81.8 percent of the district's students are proficient in reading. Just 64.8 percent passed the test's math assessment.
Roughly 74 percent of Rosemount-Eagan-Apple Valley students tested proficient in math in 2011, while roughly 88 percent of students in the district passed the reading test. But the district as a whole is currently failing AYP and is in 'corrective action' status.
The test results can also have professional repercussions for individual teachers as well. One teacher, whose specialty is remedial reading skills, told Franken at Friday's presentation that the assessments don’t reflect the achievements of his successful students. Each time a child in his class gets up to speed, the teacher said, the student is transferred out of his class. As a result, though 16 of his kids attained proficiency in reading, the assessments reflected only the 12 who didn't—a paradox that made it appear as if the teacher was inadequate.
“It would be insane to look at (the number of students who improved) and say that you failed,” Franken said.
If ultimately passed, the amendment to No Child Left Behind would institute a new test, which would evaluate higher-order skills, creativity and critical thinking, rather than mere proficiency and rote learning, Franken said.
The new test would also allow schools to use Computer Adaptive Testing, rather than a standardized paper test. Computer adaptive exams make scores available immediately, which means teachers can work on improving the individual student’s skills before school gets out for summer.
“Right now, kids take the AYP in April and the schools get the results at end of June,” Franken said. “One of the principals I talked to called the tests an autopsy. This allows the teacher to see right away what the results were for each student so the test can actually inform the teacher's instruction.”
Also, computer-based tests are interactive, and can adapt to the test-taker.
“If the kid gets the questions all right, they start getting more difficult. If they get them wrong, the questions get easier,” Franken explained.
An adaptive test reveals the student’s true grade level, rather than simply indicating the student isn't proficient in, say, sixth-grade math. It also is a more accurate indicator of progress. The new test is still in development, and Franken offered no timeline for its availability.
“Any sixth-grade teacher starts the year with a kid with third-grade reading level and gets them to fifth is a hero. Under No Child Left Behind, that teacher is a goat,” Franken said. “A computer adaptive assessment can test them out of grade level and show growth.”
All the same, School District 191 Superintendent Randy Clegg had his doubts.
"Nationwide tests are not very meaningful," Clegg said. "They're useful as benchmarks but they're not a good reflection of what's happening in a district or a classroom."
He said the role of the federal government in education should be reexamined: In his opinion, the federal government should limit its activities to research and best-practices recommendations — not direct action to reform individual schools.
For now, however, for schools hoping to avoid sanctions the only option readily at hand is a state waiver from NCLB. In November, officials at the Minnesota Department of Education applied for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. All told, 41 states have indicated they will apply for waivers.
Want to see the most recent AYP results for your child's school? Go to the Minnesota Department of Education website. In the top right corner there will be a tab labeled, "the data center." Click on it. It will show you a list: Select “How are schools performing on federal AYP measures?” and "For parents." The statewide results will appear, along with a search interface and a dropdown menu which will allow you to narrow results to individual districts or schools.
Correction: This article has been altered to correct an inaccuracy. In the original article, Patch quoted Franken as saying, “Any sixth-grade teacher starts the year with a kid with third-grade reading level and gets them to fifth is a hero. Under No Child Left Behind, that teacher is a dope.” In fact, Franken said "Under No Child Left Behind, that teacher is a goat."