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Test scores fall short of telling whole story

July 18, 2011

Everyone familiar with No Child Left Behind knew this day would come — the day that a sizable number of local schools would fail to achieve the ever-higher standards prescribed by the decade-old federal law.

Results released in late June for Washington County showed that 17 schools failed to achieve proficiency among at least one faction of third- through eighth-graders. That’s up from six schools a year ago.

School critics will be quick to pounce on the results, without mentioning that the standards for passing are higher than they were a year ago — and they will be higher again next year until, supposedly, 100 percent of our students will be proficient. That includes subgroups of traditionally disadvantaged kids (often with disinterested parents) who must, almost literally, be dragged from the streets and forced to crack a book.

Like the schools themselves, No Child Left Behind has been on a collision course with failure since its inception. NCLB was born of a worthy thought: That kids should have a chance, regardless of their race, social and economic status and regardless of the commitment of their parents.

We’ve long known that we can’t legislate morality, so we should have known that we wouldn’t be able to legislate intellect either. Yet, NCLB continues to pound learning into young heads with a sledgehammer, whether it’s truly possible or not.

So we’ve taken a child who is incapable of traditional learning, and, along with him or her, we have failed the administrators, teachers and entire schools, when the fact of the matter is, maybe these kids didn’t have much chance of success in the first place.

Certainly, NCLB has its worth, and we do not want to return to the days when difficult cases were ignored, expelled or encouraged to drop out. Every child deserves a good, solid chance. But we need to understand the harsh truth that not every child is capable of making the best of that chance, and if a few lag behind, it is no reason to broadly stamp the word “FAILING” across a school that is mainly composed of good students and good teachers.

Further, the way tests are structured, children are expected to be proficient in everything, when it might be good enough if they are merely proficient in something. Even the most talented among us generally has a subject in which he or she is lousy.

We don’t expect our poet laureates to be proficient in small-engine repair or our math whizzes to be proficient in agriculture. Why must it be the other way around? Education should be about finding out what kids are good at and cultivating that skill.

At its heart, NCLB detracts from that mission on the theory that every hair stylist ought to be able to do algebra or every airplane mechanic ought to be able to write sonnets.

Teachers and administrators spend so much time and energy chasing this ghost of 100 percent proficiency that a multitude of other teaching opportunities must necessarily be lost.

It does stand to reason that a school system that pats itself on the back — as does ours — when test scores are positive needs to be held accountable when they are not. We do not dismiss the results lightly or suggest that they are not reason for some professional self-examination.

But NCLB, and testing in general, really, could stand a strong dose of reality. Leaders at the top need to think about what they’re saying when they tell us that every single child must — by law, under penalty of massive internal school shake-ups — be proficient in every single basic subject. It’s a fantasy that has served its purpose to a degree, but now appears to be doing more harm than good.

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