How to Rebuild No Child Left Behind

By Rob Andrews

The law may be outdated, but it's not unsalvageable. 

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When President Obama addressed the nation in his State of the Union speech last year, he challenged Congress to put aside its political differences and work together to strengthen our education system. Over a year later, Congress has failed to rise to the president's challenge. As a result, our nation's educational performance continues to linger around the middle of the pack among industrialized countries. As American corporations continue to send quality jobs overseas, a mediocre education system will not solve our economic crisis. Fixing our schools must be a national priority. But to get there, we must overcome the gridlock in Washington and reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

It's no secret that better schools lead to a stronger America. Improving the quality of our classrooms provides students with the skills to compete globally, grow jobs, and turn around our economy. But America's students cannot meet today's challenges without moving NCLB into the 21st century. Enacted over 10 years ago, this law set out to hold states and schools more accountable by tying federal funding to student performance. As a result, the law has helped close the achievement gap between minority students and white students, decrease the high school dropout rate, and help many schools realize their true potential. But the law is outdated and fails to fully address our students' -- and our nation's -- educational needs.

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Above all, we must fundamentally change the way we measure schools under NCLB, which is currently done through an assessment called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Here are some proposals to fix AYP that could gain bipartisan support and ensure that schools are getting their fair share of federal assistance:

  • We must implement a longitudinal data method to measure success.

  • Student evaluation should include standardized testing, but not only standardized testing. Instead of measuring academic success in the abstract by comparing test scores of separate groups, we should look at the individual progress of each student by tracking his or her growth from year to year. If the goal of NCLB is to measure actual student success, it makes better sense to look to each student's individual growth to get a better understanding of progress.

  • Special education students should have individual and personalized standards for progress.
  • Every child with a disability should be afforded the best education possible; however, a school's AYP should not be based on standardized tests that fail to account for a child's cognitive capacity. Instead, when a student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) is set in place at the start of the academic year, the personalized goals determined through collaboration between parents and teachers should set the benchmark for the student's growth, not a standardized test that-- in many cases-- is beyond the abilities of special education students. Since current education law requires an individualized curriculum for classified children, common sense says we ought to similarly have an individualized measure for their success.

  • We need a better system to measure progress for English learners.
  • Standardized testing cannot adequately measure student success for those who struggle to read and write English. It is unreasonable to expect children to succeed on standardized testing if they cannot understand the exam's instructions, let alone analyze its questions. With that in mind, we must develop a more subjective approach to evaluate English learners so that their schools are not unfairly denied federal assistance due to failing to meet AYP.

    Reforming how we assess students under NCLB is pivotal to improving our education system. Not only does it provide a more accurate understanding of school performance, it ensures that federal funding is targeted in places that truly qualify under fair and reasonable measures. However, this is only half the formula: we must continue our efforts to make college more affordable so that those helped by NCLB can reach their full academic potential. Our urgent, and first, priority must be to reauthorize NCLB so that students are actually prepared for college and have the foundational skills needed to benefit from higher education.

    This article available online at:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/04/how-to-rebuild-no-child-left-behind/255574/