NCLB Was A Failure: PBS Reporter John Merrow Condemns Myopic Fixation on Testing

This week John Merrow, the PBS education reporter and columnist, insists that we tell ourselves the truth, even though some of our leaders want to keep pretending that test-based school reform is our path to universal academic prowess.  You’ll remember of course, that 2014 is the year the No Child Left Behind Act projected all American children would be above average.  Except it didn’t work.

Writing about the flat, unimproved scores among high school seniors released last week by the National Assessment for Education Progress, Merrow challenges our society’s complacent, bipartisan support for test-and-punish accountability—the school reform philosophy enshrined in federal law in January, 2002.  He writes: “Any thinking person, Republican or Democrat, looking at those numbers squarely in the face would have to question the path we are on.  No one in power seems to want to do that.”

For a particularly lucid analysis of the NAEP scores that were released last week, Merrow refers us to Guy Brandenburg’s blog.  Brandenburg writes:  “Perhaps you read or heard that the 12th grade NAEP reading and math scores, which just got reported, were “flat.”  Did you wonder what that meant?  The short answer is: those scores have essentially not changed since they began giving the tests!  Not for the kids at the top of the testing heap, not for those at the bottom, not for blacks, not for whites, not for Hispanics.  No change, nada, zip.  Not even after a full dozen years of Bush’s looney No Child Left Behind Act, nor its twisted Obama-style descendant, Race to the Top.”

The NAEP 12th grade test has been administered only since the mid-1990s, which means there are not four decades of scores, as with the 4th and 8th grade versions, but the data that has been collected for 12th graders covers the years since the passage of No Child Left Behind, America’s federal testing law, and the years of Arne Duncan’s experiment with setting aside billions of Title I dollars for competitive grant programs like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants for the purpose of raising test scores.

Brandenburg calls his blog: “Just a blog by a guy who’s a retired math teacher”—clearly a retired math teacher who knows how to present numbers visually.  I urge you to check out his graphs which are stunning for their flat lines—flat lines for 12th grade students in the 90th percentile, the average  scorers, and those in the 10th percentile—flat lines for 12th grade black students, Hispanic students, Asian/Pacific Islander students, and white students.  Brandenburg interprets the flat lines to “mean that there has been essentially no change, despite all the efforts of the education secretaries of Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama.  And despite the wholesale replacement of an enormous fraction of the nation’s teachers, and the handing over of public education resources to charter school operators.”

Merrow condemns Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and pro-testing pundits for their myopia—a fixation on scores rising or dropping by a point or two here or there.  “What Mr. Brandenburg has done,” writes Merrow, “is look for long-term patterns, something those in authority are not prone to do.”  Merrow’s conclusion: Our flat-lined test scores are not a reason to double down on test-and-punish accountability—not through the Common Core, not through any system that makes raising test scores the definition of quality education.

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