The Private Citizen / "Perverse incentives"
Published 1:05 am, Friday, March 26, 2010
It took about two years for the ill effects of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to reach Fairfield.
Congress passed No Child Left Behind, with bi-partisan support, in 2001. Its lofty goals are to identify, and close, the "achievement gap" in America's public schools between disadvantaged students and the majority, and to raise all students -- 100 percent of them -- to a level of "proficiency" by the year 2014. Its mechanism is not so lofty: in order to continue to qualify for the education grants they had been receiving for decades, states had to agree to test all students at certain grade levels every year, to report the results not only by school, but by specified demographic subgroups within each school, and to take increasingly punitive measures against schools that failed to meet all of the federally prescribed benchmarks. The most extreme sanctions can include a state takeover of a school or even a district, or the wholesale replacement of a school's faculty, as happened in Rhode Island a few weeks ago.
The devil is in the details. "All" means all, not just 99 percent. If a benchmark calls for 95 percent participation, 94 percent doesn't make it. The grade levels to be tested were those prescribed by Washington, not by the state. In Connecticut, the Mastery Tests now had to be given in grades 3, 5 and 7 as well as in 4, 6 and 8. There was never quite enough funding for all of the mandates. And the price for a state opting out is losing not only these grants, but significantly more money in other educational grants unrelated to them, as well.
The result was a system of "failure opportunities" that a state, or district, or school, would do anything to avoid, because repeated failures, even small ones, had disproportionate consequences. At Fairfield High School, in 2003 -- its last year of operation under that name -- about 600 sophomores took the Connecticut Academic Proficiency Test, or CAPT. The appropriate number of students did well enough, so that their actual performance was not an issue. However, in a population that size there were several demographic subgroups that were large enough, at exactly 40 or more members, for their results to have to be counted separately. Enough of these students passed, too. One of the subgroups had 50 members, and 47 were present for the test; unfortunately, the participation requirement was 95 percent, or in this case, 47.5 students, and Fairfield was deemed to have failed to make "Adequate Yearly Progress" as a result. The story's happy ending: the following year, we had two high schools with 300 sophomores each, and none of the subgroups still had as many as 40 members, so they no longer needed to be reported separately. We would pass, because we were too small to fail. I wrote about this episode at the time, under the title "Half A Child Left Behind." In that piece, I pointed out how the law created an incentive toward smaller schools, and whiter ones.
In the summer of 2004, a law professor wrote a 58-page article, with 237 footnotes, in the New York University Law Review, called "The Perverse Incentives of the No Child Left Behind Act." The authors missed the incentive I just mentioned. They did point to the main one, though: if states and schools are to be measured by the rate at which students pass a standardized test given and scored by the state, and there are major negative consequences for failing to pass enough students, the temptation is irresistible for the state to make the passing score as low as possible. If the passing score is 5, a lot more students will pass than if it is 50. In other words, a law that is designed to force more and more students to be proficient, leads states to dumb down the standard of proficiency. But that wouldn't happen here in Connecticut, would it?
Sure it would -- it did. Old-timers will remember that there used to be only two scoring levels that mattered on the Connecticut Mastery Test: a low level, below which remediation was required, and a high level called "mastery" or the "goal," at which a student might be deemed to understand the subject. Now there are four: Basic, Proficiency, Goal, and Advanced. The Proficiency level was created for use in No Child Left Behind Act reporting, and it is not as high as the state goal.
The final example is the damage No Child Left Behind has done to curriculum, through its exclusive emphasis on reading and math. I have no quarrel with reading and math, they are the two essential languages for every citizen to understand the world he or she lives in. What I do object to is crowding out all of the other things the students also need to know, but which won't be the subject of such high-stakes testing: history, for example, science, music, art, a foreign language. To use a culinary metaphor, reading and math may be the meat and potatoes of education, but by themselves, they are not a balanced diet.
There is hope. The new administration in Washington has been listening to the dissatisfaction of educators far more credentialed and more vocal than I am, and they are starting to see that by 2014, they would need to take over every school in the country if they don't do something to fix the law. They have come up with a blueprint. Bear in mind that the law, in the edition that I read, is about 1,000 pages and it reads like the tax code, and the blueprint that I saw was 41 pages in a Power Point sort of format. Still, it is adequate progress. There is some fleshing out to be done, and it will be interesting to see how Congress handles it. 2014 is not that far away.
James H. Lee writes a regular column for the Fairfield Citizen.