Monday, November 29, 2010

What Does "Left Behind" Mean?

No Child Left Behind is an education act that was passed in 2001. Then President George W. Bush signed the act into law in the beginning of 2002. It joined the alphabet soup of education jargon as NCLB, but is commonly called Nickle-Bee by education professionals. By the cynics, it is called No Child Left Untested.

What does "left behind" really mean, though? So many of our children arrive on the doorstep to kindergarten behind their peers. Catching them up by the testing year in 4th grade is daunting. So what happens? They are held back as third graders. Last year, a startling number of my students told me they were held back in third grade. I brought this up to another teacher and she said "Of course they are. They're tested in 4th grade!"

Let's think about those kids for a second. You're nine or ten years old. May comes and you find out you won't be moving on to the next grade with the rest of your friends. You're being held back. You're being left behind. What did you just learn about school? I'm not good at school. I'm not smart. I don't like school. What's the point in trying? I'll just get held back again. I failed at school.

How happy are you going to be going back to school? Your friend? They're in fourth grade. Your new classmates? They know you were held back. You've been stigmatized. You might even be shunned. At least you haven't been left behind, right?

The test scores are meant to increase every year. Here's the problem with that, you get new kids every year. Each school is tested based on a random group of children who happen to have been born in a specific time frame. Even if the teachers happen to get better, it's still a random set of children. Sure, test scores could increase slowly, but the drastic leaps expected by NCLB can be near impossible in struggling schools who receive students who have been kicked out of all the other schools. A student could spend the majority of the year at School A, transfer in March to School B and the score reflects on School B. That doesn't even cover the children who transfer schools four or five times in a school year.

NCLB is broken. It's just not an accurate display of students ability to sit them down for a week solid of testing. The tests are worth so much to schools that we end up teaching to the tests. My kids can tell you all kinds of multiple choice guessing tricks. What they can't tell you is the theme of a book. They struggle with symbolism. They struggle with genuine prediction and inference. In short, they lack critical thinking skills that a multiple choice test just can't assess. So what is left behind? Is being left behind not knowing that B and C are the most common answers on multiple choice tests? Or is being left behind not being able to analyze and truly enjoy a work of literature because you're cramming for a multiple choice test?

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