No Child generation: Federal standards, testing launched much-debated education evolution

With school back in session, members of the class of 2014 are looking at their senior year, an educational career that has been different from any before it.

These 17- and 18-year-olds were just kindergartners when No Child Left Behind was put on the table.

Technically, the name of the law is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001, an update to Lyndon Johnson’s legislation of the same name passed in 1965. The program was so important to George W. Bush that he proposed it just three days after being sworn in as president. It emphasized standards, with the goal of holding all schools responsible for putting kids on equal footing, whether they came from a wealthy household in a gated community, an inner-city housing project or a rural area of central Pennsylvania.

“I think the strengths of NCLB is it created a measuring system for school effectiveness, something that never existed before,” said Penns Valley Superintendent Brian Griffith.

That measuring system, however, scared many educators. There was a new importance to standardized testing, and while the federal government mandated the tests, the states were the ones that picked the tests and set their benchmarks.

Some states set the bar fairly low, with lots of room to grow. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, picked higher thresholds, which superintendents bemoaned in 2002 as the law went into effect.

The class of 2014 was halfway through first grade. Those first years of NCLB didn’t affect them too much at that point. The test used to measure students’ mastery of subject matter in the state was the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, a test that was actually put in place in 1999, and it wasn’t administered across the board. However, schools already were laying the groundwork to get the students up to snuff by that point.

Many Pennsylvania districts, including Philipsburg-Osceola, took advantage of state grants to replace half-day kindergarten programs with full-day, to reduce class sizes in crucial primary years, and other steps that put more emphasis on making the grade at younger ages.

“In the 2005-2006 school year, we were mandated to test all students in reading and math in grades three through eight,” said P-O Superintendent Gregg Paladina. The class of 2014 was in fourth grade that year. “By 2007-2008, we were testing students at every level.”

Assessments in writing and science also were added to the mix. But for some, the problem wasn’t what was being tested, but sometimes how the test results were interpreted.

‘Tough to enforce’

NCLB was intended to put students on the same level, but subgroups could trump all. A district could make adequate yearly progress with its whole averages, but the lower test scores of a smaller population, like special education students, minority groups or low-income households, could still put them into the dreaded “school improvement” category that could threaten funding, force staffing changes or more.

That meant, for every 40 students with learning disabilities in 2010, 25 had to achieve a score of proficient or advanced on the tests, even though provisions to accommodate those disabilities weren’t allowed. Other standardized tests, such as the SAT, do allow for certain accommodations, for disabilities and for students whose first language isn’t English.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all with public education,” said State College Superintendent Bob O’Donnell. “The 7,200 kids who come to us every day are 7,200 individuals.”

“I feel that it has been tough to enforce NCLB and AYP on local schools,” Paladina said. “They are unfunded mandates. During the early part of NCLB, schools that struggled were ultimately taken over and run by agents of the state. This proved costly to the state, and they couldn’t afford to run schools at the local level. Many of these schools were high-poverty schools in areas where basic survival needs took a front seat to education.”

In 2010, with the class of 2014 in eighth grade, President Barack Obama proposed an overhaul of the legislation, calling for assessments that would try to look at education a little differently.

“The weakness (of the PSSA) is nuance of understanding. I may understand a passage that I’ve read, but a multiple-choice test might not measure the nuances. It asks open-ended questions but scores like multiple choice,” said Griffith, who thinks some subjects, such as math, can be quantified that way, but others, such as reading comprehension, need more subjective assessment.

“The measuring tools themselves have deficiencies, but they all do.” Griffith said.

Keystones added

Pennsylvania addressed another common complaint with the PSSAs, teaching to the test with the Keystone Exam. Some parents in recent years have said students are being taught tested material out of order to get it in before assessments.

The Keystones, a new secondary exam, test specific course material, no matter what year it is taught. Students will take one test on Algebra I after taking the class, whether in eighth grade or 10th. The same will happen for literature and biology.

“It’s the logical progression,” O’Donnell said.

The change also brings student responsibility into play. PSSAs have held school districts accountable, and with new changes to evaluations, teachers also are being measured by them. But students haven’t had any obligations.

Students in the class of 2014, however, will have to pass their Keystones in order to graduate, forcing them to take these tests more seriously than they might have back in third grade.

Educators also think there is more to education, including programs that are being overlooked.

“Many schools, by necessity for funding purposes, had to eliminate vital programs to students’ future success such as the arts and limit social studies and science,” Paladina said.

Griffith agrees.

“I would argue you don’t have to do that,” he said. “We haven’t cut back.”

In fact, most Centre County schools say they have tried hard to keep their arts programs. O’Donnell points to the value of art in language and a correlation between music and math. In P-O, Osceola Mills Elementary music teacher Don Henry put in a keyboard lab with the goal of fourth-graders leaving the building literate in music, and last year, math scores rose to top state averages.

‘Accountability’ questions

Some educators are also frustrated at being held to different standards than other schools. Private and parochial schools aren’t measured by the NCLB yardstick. Principal Kathy Bechdel at Our Lady of Victory Catholic School in State College said her students do take a standardized test, but not the PSSAs or Keystones.

“What about charter schools who are consistently underperforming?” Griffith said. “What is the accountability standard for those charter schools?”

Levant Kaya, CEO of Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania, said his students take the same tests and “there is no difference in terms of accountability.”

Test scores available at show YSCP’s numbers as high as 100 percent proficient or above in fourth grade math and science for 2012, with only sixth-grade numbers falling below state averages at 68 percent in math and 63 percent in reading.

Those state averages, 77 percent and 69 percent, respectively, fall short of the designed requirements for the PSSAs, which were supposed to have 78 and 81 percent proficiency by 2012 in the two classes, on the way to 100 percent proficiency across the board by 2014.

A revamp of NCLB, however, eliminates AYP and goals that many saw as aspirational but unrealistic. In August, Pennsylvania announced it had an NCLB waiver request approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“We now have a better way of guiding improvement efforts in schools by establishing ambitious, yet attainable, goals,” Gov. Tom Corbett said in a news release last month.

The change will see the creation of a School Performance Profile that looks at areas such as test scores as well as graduation and attendance rates, increasing proficiency by 50 percent over a six-year window and closing the achievement gap in “historically underperforming” subgroups by the same amount within that period.

‘Science of teaching’

Released information speaks of an increased emphasis on intervention and support for schools that fall in “priority” or “focus” categories.

“I do think that NCLB was important in that it got schools to use data and look at impact more,” O’Donnell said. “Accountability and consistency changed the conversation.”

It also created a huge bureaucracy in education at even the most local level that many taxpayers and parents still struggle to understand. Griffith says Penns Valley manages the fiscal and time burden of 20 different reports collected and sent to the state three or four times a year.

“It’s millions of pieces of information about students, staff, etc. It’s just incredible. We report everything,” he said.

Educators aren’t opposed to testing, but they do worry about the emphasis on it.

“It’s a helpful tool, but it’s a tool,” O’Donnell said. “There’s no question, students that perform higher on assessments have more opportunities when it comes to postsecondary. But with that said, how does an assessment test on one day determine what the ceiling is?”

“Testing should be used as a barometer for success in the classroom. It helps us measure what the students are doing well and areas which require remediation,” Paladina said. “However, there comes a point where we can test students too much.”

There is less panic about the changes to NCLB than there was with its implementation when the class of 2014 was starting school.

“We are getting better every day with the science of teaching, but there’s still a human element,” Griffith said. “Humans aren’t perfect and can’t be quantified.”