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December 1, 2007
Vol. 65
No. 4

Special Report / Left Behind—By Design

A recent study by two University of Chicago economists suggests that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is leaving many children behind, especially low and high performers. The authors base their findings on two sets of test scores from 5th graders in the Chicago Public Schools: scores from 2002, after implementation of NCLB, and scores from 1998, when a similar reform approach was tried using the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Students in the middle of the distribution in both groups made greater gains in reading and math than did either low- or high-ability students. Low-ability students scored the same or lower following the reforms; high-ability students showed mixed gains at best.
The report focuses on the repercussions of accountability systems that tie rewards and sanctions to the number of students in certain groups who cross a predetermined proficiency threshold. The report suggests that accountability systems that place great weight on students who score in the middle provide few incentives for teachers to focus time and effort on the least and most able students. According to the authors, "Schools may find it optimal to ignore students who have little or no chance of reaching proficiency without intensive and costly intervention … and to limit services for gifted children who are likely already proficient" (p. 9).
  • The choice of the proficiency standard will determine how much time teachers devote to students of different ability levels. In fact, "raising standards may actually increase the number of low-achieving children who are ‘left behind’ by increasing the number for whom the standard is out of reach" (p. 5).
  • The goal of 100 percent proficiency does not constitute a "credible threat" in forcing schools to effectively address the needs of their less able students. This goal could actually make matters worse for students who are far below grade level in reading and math.
  • Although NCLB may have narrowed some achievement gaps in Illinois, many black and Hispanic students "were likely not helped and may have been harmed by NCLB" (p. 5). In the Chicago Public Schools, this may amount to more than 25,000 students.
  • Although NCLB calls for highly qualified teachers, the law makes it more difficult for disadvantaged schools to recruit and retain good teachers.
"Contrary to its name," the report notes, NCLB "is not designed to make sure that no child is left behind" (p. 6). In fact, taking into account other U.S. cities that educate large populations of disadvantaged students, NCLB is most likely leaving hundreds of thousands behind.
Left Behind by Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-Based Accountability, by Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, is available athttp://home.uchicago.edu/~n9na/web_ver_final.pdf.

Portfolios: A Step Backward…

A recent report from the Lexington Institute—Portfolios: A Backward Step in School Accountability—suggests that portfolio assessment is unreliable and too costly to use in large-scale accountability systems. The report cites Vermont's and Kentucky's attempts during the 1990s to use portfolio assessment to evaluate whether schools, districts, and states were making adequate progress. The report points out that portfolios don't yield reliable comparative data because of differences in implementation, student revision opportunities, and levels of difficulty; that they exact a high price in terms of money, time, and stress on staff members; and that they can be problematic in terms of assessing the degree of outside assistance that a student has received.
The report concludes that although portfolio assessment can be effective in certain situations, "for large-scale evaluation … standardized tests primarily using multiple-choice questions that can be machine-scored offer education officials the best value in terms of reliability, accuracy, ability to generalize the results, ease of scoring, and costs" (p. 9).

… or Forward?

The Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University noted several "glaring weaknesses" in the Lexington Institute report, which, it points out, is "intended to influence the debate over the direction of the reauthorization of NCLB, offering a defense of the current test-based accountability system against the inclusion of ‘multiple measures’" (p. 1). According to the Arizona State University review, the report bases its conclusions on shaky grounds: Of the two 13-year-old studies cited, one is presented through a secondary source—another free-market think tank; the other is referred to by way of a brief summary that leaves out pertinent research reporting higher levels of reliability with portfolio assessment. "Particularly troublesome," notes the review, "is the use of a select two studies, apparently chosen because they support the author's perspective" (p. 6).
The report's "most tenuous knot," however, is considering portfolio assessments—and their shortcomings—as representative of all non-test-based measures of student performance. The review references a National Education Association position paper that notes that, in addition to portfolio assessments, multiple indicators could include such items as attendance rates and the percentage of students participating in advanced placement courses. Shortcomings associated with portfolio assessment would clearly not apply to such indicators.
The review concludes that policymakers would do well to engage in a broader exploration of multiple measures, which would be a step forward—not backward—in school accountability.
Portfolios: A Backward Step in School Accountability is available athttp://lexingtoninstitute.org. The Education Policy Research Unit's review of the report is available athttp://epsl.asu.edu/epru/ttreviews/EPSL-0709-240-EPRU.pdf.

Amy Azzam has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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