'No Child Left Behind' triggers frustration
Legislation that was intended to improve the performance of schools by increasing accountability has turned into an under-funded federal mandate that seems to penalize schools.
At least that's what U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar believes happened to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.
Signed into law in January 2002, the NCLB Act was supposed to improve student performance by increasing accountability for states, school districts and schools, according to the senator.
Supporters of the law say it has brought much-needed accountability to public education, especially in serving disadvantaged students. Critics, on the other hand, say the federal law has created new under-funded mandates and encouraged an excessive focus on narrow standardized testing, according to Klobuchar.
Because Congress will soon be taking up the reauthorization of the NCLB Act, staff members from Klobuchar's office have conducted a series of education forums around the state.
Klobuchar wants to hear comments, ideas and thoughts from school officials on education in Minnesota and how Congress can make NCLB stronger and better.
The education forum in Alexandria last week was the 28th out of 29 stops this spring. Klobuchar's staff members Joe Campbell, who works out of her Minneapolis office and Andy Martin, who works out of the Moorhead office, stopped at Discovery Middle School on Wednesday to hear what local school officials had to say about NCLB.
Three panelists from Alexandria School District 206 led the discussion to a group of between 25 and 30, including Julie Critz, director of teaching and learning, Jeff Jorgensen, special education director and Mike Donahue, social studies teacher at Jefferson High School.
Critz believes that school districts need testing in some form, but testing associated with NCLB is an anxiety producing time for students. "We need to be accountable, but in a less stressful way," she said.
Jorgensen was surprised by the NCLB testing and that it set a distinctive bar for special education students. The bar, he said, had been raised higher than ever, but students are not where the state thinks they should be academically. However, their test scores prove they have made progress - more progress than what would have been expected without the mandates.
The lesson, according to Jorgensen, is that schools need to continue to expect more from special education students because they are capable.
However, school districts shouldn't be penalized because special education students didn't make the adequate yearly progress the state believes they should be making.
"We should be recognized and rejoice when we make progress - of any kind," said the special education director. "Not all students are the same and we should rejoice in that."
Donahue believes that Congress needs to get the NCLB law right and get it adjusted back to grassroots education. Congress needs to find better ways to measure schools, he said. He also believes that school districts need to attract and retain good quality teachers who know how to teach what they know.
"From a teaching perspective, we shouldn't be teaching to the test," Donahue said.
Because of all the tests involved with NCLB, Donahue believes that students are becoming memorizing robots.
A member of the audience asked Donahue if Congress really could make the necessary changes. "Why are we assuming Congress can make the changes?" the member asked.
Donahue replied by saying that Congress put the NCLB Act in place and that it should either fix it or delete it.
"Congress and federal government [officials] should sit down with teachers and administrators to discuss this," he said. "They should stop using education as a whipping boy to get elected and instead, get back to grassroots education."
Members of the audience and the panelists discussed the different tests that are given throughout the year to students, including the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA-II) and the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessments, which are often referred to in District 206 as the District Achievement Test (DALT).
Critz explained after the forum that the DALT is a multiple-choice test, which doesn't get at the higher order thinking skills that the MCA tests get. The MCA test, said Critz, does a better job trying to get at the application of knowledge versus the memorizing of knowledge.
She also noted that each of the tests serves different purposes and each has benefits, but that teachers tend to prefer the DALT because they get immediate feedback.
Jorgensen expressed concern with the tests and noted that all students like to be successful when taking tests, but not when the tests are unattainable.
Funding was also a big issue with the panelists and the audience members. They voiced their frustrations that there just isn't enough funding for what needs to be done.
"We are extremely frustrated with the funding," said Jorgensen. "Funds keep going away but costs keep going up. We need adequate funding."
Klobuchar's staff members assured all in attendance that they would take their concerns back to the senator and that if they had any more suggestions, ideas or comments, they could contact the senator anytime.
For an updated schedule of forums and to submit ideas visit www. klobucharsenate.gov/ nclb.cfm.