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Spring 2004
No Child Left Behind
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So one fundamental area of disagreement is whether current tests narrow or focus the curriculum and whether they result in consequences that are good or bad for learning. One option is to focus tests on a core of common skills while also offering other subjects and skills that broaden the curriculum but are not necessarily the subject of evaluation. But short of practicing the test items, or those similar to them, there is little reason to focus on standards rather than on the test. I believe this fact is contrary to the desire of the public for improved educational quality.

A second, related concern is how the targets that are set for performance improvement (adequate yearly progress, or AYP) interact with learning. AYP is the amount of improvement schools need to make, starting from their present point, to attain 100-percent proficiency within 12 years. Some policymakers thought this requirement would mean equal progress annually — that is, 1/12th of the distance would be achieved in Year 1 and, cumulatively, 12/12ths would be achieved at the end of the 12th year. If a school started at 20-percent proficiency, then it would have to increase the percentage of proficient students by a little less than 7 percent annually for all students to meet the standard. However, a reality is that students in schools do not often remain in place, and the formula must account for differences in expertise in entering and leaving students. Because sanctions are imposed far earlier than the 12th year, however, states have reacted in a variety of ways: While all are required to make sufficient progress early on, some states have chosen to defer major progress until the last few years.

Ironically, the AYP provisions created tension during the legislative process, even though states may choose their own standards and their own tests, determine their own levels of proficiency and develop a fully rigorous system or one that uses attainable standards and tests so that early progress is shown. Different states have interpreted the law in a wide variety of ways, and some states' well-defined procedures for measuring progress have been disallowed by the federal government. Added to the mix is the contention that NCLB carries great costs that are not now, nor likely to be, reimbursed by the federal government. There are numerous technical criticisms of the artifacts caused by requiring multiple subgroups to meet the targets, with raging battles about the accuracy, fairness and utility of the published results.

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