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NCLB's Failure Again on Display

August 06, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota school officials announced Tuesday that nearly half of the state's schools fell short of state education standards.

This clearly ridiculous finding is part of the federal No Child Left Behind law that requires states to test students in math, science and reading each year. Schools that don't meet NCLB goals are publicly shamed and ultimately forced to reroute public money for poor children to private or public firms.

The benchmark for a passing grade rises each year. The process, called Adequate Yearly Progress, culminates in 2014 when every student must pass the test or the school will face punishment.

The result of this rising bar is that each year more schools fail. In 2005, 247 Minnesota schools did not meet AYP.  In 2006, 483 came up short. Last year, 729 failed and this year 937 of the state's 1,920 schools - nearly half - failed the tests.

Every educator in Minnesota would welcome an assessment that fairly evaluates student growth, but results such as these show that NCLB test results are meaningless.

Joe Brown, superintendent of Grand Meadow Schools, agrees that NCLB's call for increased standards and accountability are good ideas. However, he points to a president, congress, governor, and state legislature that have not provided schools with the money they need to achieve NCLB goals.

"If all four of those groups had fully funded education, NCLB might have worked. But without the funding, it was set up only for failure," Brown said.

Both Brown and state Rep. Mindy Greiling, chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee, pointed to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's role in funding education:

NCLB's goals of better accountability, teacher quality and information about student achievement would have been implemented if the governor had not vetoed an improved school report card, Grieling said.

Brown noted that Pawlenty will talk before the National Press Corps today. "I hope someone there asks him why half his schools don't make AYP," Brown said.

NCLB requires states to administer standardized tests to students in math, science and reading. Results are reported in demographic and special student populations. Failure occurs if not enough students in these populations take the test or fail the test.

Failure results in a schedule of punishments which include ways both big and small to funnel public money into private business.

In its most ironic twist, the federal government holds schools accountable for NCLB by withholding Title I money from those that don't make AYP. Title I money is spent on poor children to help them learn how to read. It only goes to schools with a large number of poor children. This means that NCLB financial sanctions affect only poor districts, and poor children bear the brunt of the program.

Education leaders know that for NCLB to work, money has to flow into the program.

"If we're really serious about producing world-class students for the 21st century, we need a better system of accountability, resources that consistently meet the needs of schools and students, and a transparent system of data reporting to make sure we can understand how Minnesota schools are really doing," Greiling said.

"But this is so fixable," Brown said, pointing to a new school funding formula currently being developed by Greiling's committee.

He said that if the formula is equitable across the state and understandable to parents, then voters will support education and won't need made-up government programs like NCLB to tell them if they have good schools. 

"The current system is not equitable or fair. It has winners and losers. Half the schools in this state aren't losers. It's not a fair way to look at schools," he said.

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