National Commentary

Helen Thomas: U.S. School program puts the wrong emphasis on testing

WASHINGTON — The highly touted federal "No Child Left Behind" Act is flawed and needs overhauling.

Do children really learn by constant testing? I doubt it.

How about inspiring teachers, good books and lasting lessons to educate the young?

Critics of the Bush administration’s hallmark school program argue that its spotlight on standardized testing as a way to assess a student’s progress encourages "teaching by testing" and forces teachers to focus on teaching skills to pass the test rather teaching a deeper understanding of a subject.

Rather than the joy of learning, students face even more test anxiety and competitiveness.

Supporters of the No Child Left Behind program note that it is intended to improve the performance of students in primary and secondary schools by increasing accountability for states, school districts and schools. It also gives parents flexibility in choosing schools for their children and places a heavy emphasis on reading skills.

The program is President Bush’s domestic centerpiece which he imported to Washington from his years as governor of Texas. He initially claimed vast improvements in test scores in the public schools in his state but a later inquiry revealed test-rigging by educators and administrators. There also was a failure to report the number of drop outs.

The No Child Left Behind law was signed on Jan. 9, 2002, with the support of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., now chairman of the Senate education committee.

But Kennedy now says changes are needed in the program.

The senator is proposing expanding social programs for low-income children and new academic standards that would help students meet the demands of college work and military service.

The law requires each state to determine levels of proficiency of its students. If a single group within the school fails to reach the proficiency standard, the entire school is considered to have fallen short.

The main bone I have to pick with the program is the application of the law to severely handicapped children who attend special education classes. Just learning to lift a spoon is an achievement for some of those children.

An educator who teaches such classes — and requested anonymity — says it is "monstrous" that the law requires disabled students to meet 10 reading objectives and 10 math goals.

Despite teacher protests about the strain on the handicapped child and the already over-burdened parents, no exceptions are allowed.

The progress of all students is measured annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once during high school.

By the end the 2007-2008 school year, there also will be science testing in grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12.

There are widespread complaints that the program is underfunded. Last year, Bush requested only $13.3 billion of $22.75 billon needed for the program. Earlier this week, the president celebrated the fifth anniversary of the law but was non-committal about boosting federal funding for the law.

Two years ago, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman signed a new state law allowing Utah school districts to ignore provisions of the federal law that conflict with the state’s programs. Utah became the first state to bow out of the program. The federal Department of Education has threatened to withhold funding as a result.

Teachers unions such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have opposed the law from its inception. They question its effectiveness as presently written and the funding. Often teachers are blamed when inner-city schools fall short in performance. But the teachers respond that a student’s home environment has a lot to do with how he or she scores in a test.

The law requires that a teacher have at least a bachelor’s degree and must pass a state test demonstrating basic knowledge in reading, writing, language and other elements of the curriculum.

The program may produce more technocrats, but I’d like to see more emphasis on history, civics and literature. I’ll quote the president — a Yale and Harvard grad: "Is our children learning?"

 

(c) 2007 Hearst Newspapers