Is "No Child Left Behind" passing the test five years later?

When President Bush signed the bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act five years ago last Monday, he promised it would put U.S. schools "on a new path of reform and a new path of (academic) results." In evaluating NCLB's five-year record, the respected Christian Science Monitor reports that "critics and admirers of the bill tend to agree about the reform part, but say they're still waiting for the results."

In order to learn how NCLB has affected public education here in Carson, I interviewed School Superintendent Dr. Mary Pierczynski and asked her how our local schools have fared under the new federal legislation. The good news is that although all 10 schools in Carson City failed to meet NCLB standards in the '04-'05 school year, eight out of 10 passed in '05-'06, when only Empire and Fremont elementary schools fell short of national standards.

"NCLB established valid goals for teachers and students," Dr. Pierczynski told me, "but the people who put it together must never have been in a classroom." She questioned a rigid, uniform approach to teacher standards and academic achievement measurements because of the astonishing diversity of school districts in Nevada and across the nation.

The superintendent produced statistics showing that Carson City is second only to Clark County (Las Vegas) - which is home to nearly 80 percent of Nevada's schoolchildren - in the percentage of "limited English proficiency" (LEP) students. According to the UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research, 21 percent of Clark County's school population is composed of LEP students with Carson close behind at 18.6 percent. Next in line is Washoe County (Reno) at 13.9 percent. This highlights the daily challenge that local teachers face as they attempt to bring students from non-English-speaking homes into the mainstream of classroom instruction.

These statistics also help to explain why Nevada ranks 48th among all states with only 44 percent of its public schools making "adequate yearly progress," trailed only by Hawaii and Florida. The "high three" states were Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Iowa, but don't ask me why.

Dr. Pierczynski provided a partial explanation of these surprising results by noting that each state sets its own testing standards, and Nevada's are relatively high. The Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) studied student math and English proficiency standards in 15 states and concluded that Nevada's were considerably higher than most of the other states surveyed. "The state proficiency levels are directly related to the computation of adequate yearly progress ..." the NWEA report concluded.

Another reason for our poor showing is that Clark County's low test scores constitute a drag on the rest of the state's school districts. For example, while only 20 percent of Clark County fourth-graders meet national math and reading standards, that figure is closer to 70 percent in Carson and the rest of Northern Nevada.

Dr. Pierczynski and many other experts believe a so-called "growth model" would be a better way to evaluate academic achievement because it would measure an individual student's progress from year to year rather than to hold each student - even those with limited English proficiency - to the same one-size-fits-all model. Northern Nevada educators will meet in Reno later this month to map out a strategy designed to convince the U.S. Education Department to adopt the growth model.

"It would be a better reflection of the reality of our public schools," Pierczynski added. "Our tests need to reflect our standards. We want to see nine months worth of progress each year and to focus on the special needs of minorities, including speakers of other languages."

My younger sister, who taught fourth grade in upscale Marin County, Calif., for 30 years, isn't as diplomatic as our local superintendent. "As a national standard, NCLB pits affluent schools against all the rest," she told me. "There's no equality of testing." She said teachers spend too much time "teaching to the test" or as they call it, "drill and kill." Moreover, in her opinion, NCLB discourages real learning because it doesn't include creativity, student curiosity, creative problem-solving and thinking, or group projects where students learn from one another. As a former Marin Teacher of the Year, she has high credibility on this subject.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, NCLB is a partial success because "achievement levels are creeping up toward the 2014 deadline when all public school-children are supposed to be 'proficient' at math and reading. Even the act's harshest critics admit that it has changed the conversation about education in America, and focused attention on low-achieving students, who had been overlooked." NCLB will receive much-needed scrutiny from the new Democrat-controlled Congress because the act expires this year, giving lawmakers an opportunity to revise national standards in order to make them fairer and more effective in measuring student progress. For the teachers and the students, I hope they do the right thing.

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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