The federal testing law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), requires that states inform parents when—by the standardized tests required by NCLB—their child’s school has been identified as a “failing” school. The problem is that, because NCLB required states to raise the “cut score” for student proficiency higher every year at the same time NCLB mandated that all schools make all their students be proficient by 2014, virtually all schools across America are now failing schools—by the ill-conceived mechanism of NCLB.
All but a hand-full of states have applied for and received NCLB waivers that the U.S. Department of Education has made available to states to release them from the ridiculous requirement that all schools be labeled failures and other penalties embedded in NCLB that have proven ill-advised or unworkable. To qualify for a NCLB waiver, however, states must meet the conditions Arne Duncan’s Department has established. The primary requirement is that states agree to evaluate and rate teachers based on the statewide standardized test the state created to test all students as required by NCLB. Washington state wanted to let school districts choose what test to use to evaluate and rate teachers, and Washington state was punished in April 2014, when the U.S. Department of Education rescinded its NCLB waiver.
A few states, however, do not have NCLB waivers. Last week Vermont’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe explained why her state has never sought a waiver. Holcombe sent out a letter to all the parents of Vermont, as required by NCLB—to tell them that their children are attending a “failing” school. Holcombe then explains very clearly why the failure label is meaningless. She also explains how the whole test-and-punish regime of NCLB has been a fiasco. John Kuhn, the prophetic superintendent of the tiny Perrin-Whitt School District in Texas tweeted, “I want to move to Vermont now.”
Of course, in a lot of ways small, homogeneous Vermont is not like Texas or Illinois or New York or Michigan or Pennsylvania or New Jersey. For one thing, all of these states applied for and got waivers, and in many of these cases, state legislators and governors are marching to the tune of the test-and-punish school “reform” being prescribed right now by our federal.
Even if we can’t all move to Vermont now, however, we should read Rebecca Holcombe’s letter because it sorts out the NCLB education policies that baffle too many of us. Maybe, like Vermont, more states could simply refuse to play this crazy game, explain how the rules are all messed up, and get on with educating children and supporting teachers. Holcombe makes it sound that easy.
“Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), as of 2014, if only one child in your school does not score as ‘proficient’ on state tests, then your school must be ‘identified’ as ‘low performing’ under federal law. This year, every school whose students took the NECAP tests last year is now considered a ‘low performing’ school by the US Department of Education… The Vermont Agency of Education does not agree with this federal policy, nor do we agree that all of our schools are low performing.” (emphasis Holcombe’s)
Holcombe describes positive accomplishments in the public schools across the state of Vermont, but then reminds parents why she is sending this strange letter telling them their school is a failure: “Nevertheless, if we fail to announce that each Vermont school is ‘low performing,” we jeopardize federal funding for elementary and secondary education… This policy does not serve the interest of Vermont schools, nor does it advance our economic or social well-being. Further, it takes our focus away from other measures that give us more meaningful and useful data on school effectiveness.”
Holcombe explains why Vermont has chosen never to apply for a waiver: “Most other states have received a waiver to get out from under the broken NCLB policy. They did this by agreeing to evaluate their teachers and principals based on the standardized test scores of their students… We chose not to agree to a waiver for a lot of reasons, including that the research we have read on evaluating teachers based on test scores suggests these methods are unreliable in classes with 15 or fewer students, and this represents about 40-50% of our classes. It would be unfair to our students to automatically fire their educators based on technically inadequate tools. Also, there is evidence suggesting that over-relying on test-based evaluation might fail to credit educators for doing things we actually want them to do, such as teach a rich curriculum across all important subject areas, and not just math and English language arts.”
Holcombe ends with a set of nine questions, a guide parents can use to evaluate their child’s school and their child’s progress. From her point of view, evaluating what’s happening at school is well within the abilities of most parents. It is important and at the same time very basic—including questions like: “Is your child happy to go to school and engaged in learning?” and “Can your child explain what he is learning and why?” I urge you to read Holcombe’s letter and to consider her excellent guide for parents. She concludes: “Be engaged with your school, look at evidence of your own child’s learning, and work with your local educators to ensure that every child is challenged and supported, learning, and thriving.”