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MCA-II Results are Out

July 01, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

While most of you were sleeping, the Minnesota Department of Education released this year's MCA-II results -- the state's No Child Left Behind measure.  The numbers were slightly better than last year. In Math, just more than 66 percent of the students were proficient. Reading scores showed a 72.5 percent proficiency rate.

In the coming weeks, different groups will analyze these numbers trying to figure out what they really say about education in Minnesota. Unfortunately, the way NCLB is designed the test results still won't be good enough for many schools in the state.
The August AYP report will likely make it appear that an overwhelming number of schools are failing; that is not the case.

Here's what's important to remember about the way NCLB is designed:  It is a poor measure of student achievement and doesn't accurately reveal the ability of teachers and administrators.  Minnesota remains a high ranking state when it comes to graduation and college acceptance rates. 

NCLB, hailed in 2002 as "education reform," is anything but. Its punitive nature requires schools to perform one test on students every year to measure reading, writing and arithmetic. Since schools are judged by student test performance, teachers feel compelled to instruct students to best reflect the questions on the test. The test standards rise each year until 2014 when, unrealistically, every school must meet NCLB standards or face punishments that include firing administrators and teachers regardless of their level of excellence.

Make no mistake about it. NCLB is no friend of education.

"The idea was to improve education," said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "We want kids to be more successful but we're using a mechanism that's making it worse and not better."

NCLB's limitations have been known for a long time. A 2007 survey conducted by Macalester College and Minnesota 2020 found 65 percent of teachers said identifying schools that have not met NCLB standards will not lead to school improvement, more than 65 percent said NCLB increases teacher focus onto those students who are just under the passing score at the expense of the class, only 13 percent said sanctions improve teaching, almost 90 percent said they were under unfair pressure to improve student test scores, and almost 90 percent said NCLB unfairly rewards and punishes teachers.

Politicians may say otherwise, but NCLB has not made a dent in the achievement gap. Minnesota's black and Hispanic students are either dropping out of high school or failing to continue their post-high school education at a stunning rate whether you measure the issue using NCLB statistics or not. The Minnesota Department of Education reports that blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in Minnesota graduate at half the rate of whites in the state.

For schools that receive federal money for low-income students, failure in NCLB means having money redirected away from schools. In Minnesota, well over half the schools with a 20 percent or higher ratio of minority students stand a greater chance of "failing" NCLB.

Even though NCLB it is horribly flawed, it is law. Congress has been wrestling with reauthorization since 2007 but partisan politics means change will likely be difficult before next year.

Will NCLB change after reauthorization? That's up to the Congress, of course, but President Obama's Race to the Top education plan and his Blueprint for Reform for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (renamed No Child Left Behind in 2002) show that the federal government is more interested in education reform than NCLB's punitive measures.

The direct result of NCLB test numbers is that parents come to believe that their schools and their teachers are not doing a good job when that is not the case. NCLB provides inaccurate information that skews the way we view our schools and teachers. When placed against the unrealistic backdrop of NCLB, all schools and teachers ultimately will fail.

This wasn't good education policy under the Bush administration and it remains a destructive policy under the Obama administration. Minnesota would do better in the long run if it jettisons NCLB, but we don't because we need the federal funds that are tied to it in this era of state education cuts.

Until NCLB is changed or Minnesota drops the program, we will continue to be treated to a litany of statistics that paint Minnesota schools and teachers in a bad light. Don't believe them. The schools and teachers are just fine - it's the test that's flawed.

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