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Nothing Will Happen with NCLB

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An August 7 Washington Post editorial called a speech by California Rep. George Miller as "refreshing:" "So it was refreshing to here a leading liberal Democrat speak passionately about his commitment to this landmark law." The law is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, known in its current incarnation as "No Child Left Behind." It is up for re-authorization this year.

Mr. Miller, realizing he couldn't get the reauthorization before everyone skedaddled home for summer recess, spoke July 30 at the National Press Club, outlining what he wants to see in the bill he will bring forth in September.

I'm not sure the Post understood what Mr. Miller said and I'm not sure Mr. Miller understood what Mr. Miller said. Mr. Miller said that the law "is not fair. It is not flexible and it is not funded. I can tell you that there are no votes in the U. S. House of Representatives for continuing the No Child Left Behind Act without making serious changes to it." That's clear. So far, so good.

But then he dropped a pair of doozies: "I have always said that I am proud to be one of the original coauthors of the No Child Left Behind Act. But what I really want is to be the proud coauthor of a law that works." Well I reckon that gives the game away.

Miller proposed that under the new law "states will be allowed to develop better tests that more accurately measure what all students have learned." Read: not all kids will take the same tests. Read: states will be permitted to use performance tests and other alternatives to multiple-choice tests. Tacked onto this, Miller acknowledged the criticism that NCLB's emphasis only on math and science has inappropriately narrowed the curriculum (and, if he gets completely honest about this, he'll acknowledge that the narrowing has afflicted kids who can least afford to let it happen to them). Read: We'll test in more curriculum areas.

More tests! Underlying this rhetoric is a complexity of both psychometrics and information technology that I don't think Mr. Miller grasps. As Tom Toch of the Education Sector recently pointed out, the testing industry infrastructure has imploded already under weight of the existing law. States added 11 million tests in 2005-2006 and will add another 11 million next year when the NCLB science requirement kicks in. The errors made by the testing companies have soared and even when they get it right they often don't get it right in time for schools to use the results properly under the law.

And yet, in a follow-up that came across the wire services August 8, Miller added even more tests: the tests must test "21st century skills:" "These measures (tests) can no longer reflect just basic skills and memorization. Rather, they must reflect critical-thinking skills and the ability to apply knowledge to new and challenging contexts. These are the skills that today's students need to meet the complex demands of the American economy and society in a globalized world." This last, of course, is rather dubious but it is today's mantra.

Finally, "The legislation I will introduce will contain a growth model that gives credit to states and schools for the progress that their students make over time." Everybody loves growth models these days. Me included. Schools whose students make good progress ought not to be punished if they started from such a low level that they didn't make the magical "proficient" level. Right now, "growth" is measured by looking at how this year's third graders compare to last year's. Of course, these are two different groups of children and they could differ for reasons other than those having to do with the quality of instruction they are receiving. But I don't think most states are in a position to use growth models.

I also don't think Mr. Miller has a good grasp on the state of student-tracking technology. And what about the 20% of those students who change schools every year -- 50-60% in many urban areas? Who's going to be held accountable for the performance of these kids (the kids who move usually suffer, sometimes so do those in the receiving school when teachers backtrack to re-cover material to accommodate the newcomers)?

Predicting what will happen to NCLB in the next few months is iffy, very iffy, but here goes: Nothing will happen. Congress will pass a one-year automatic extension. And that means that it will be 2009 before we get a full-fledged revision because ain't nobody gonna touch it during a presidential election year.

So we'll be stuck with a law that's all stick and no carrot for another two years.

What a tragedy.