It will lead to a resegregation of schools
The initial passage and continuing support for No Child Left Behind was built on a rationale based exclusively on the potential for positive results from the law’s implementation.
In order to sell NCLB to those who remained unmoved by promises of accountability, a social reformist rhetoric was developed around the core message that NCLB would offer academic support for the poor, the neglected, and the minority children who had been left to languish in substandard schools.
It is not for me to say who did and who did not believe this marketing strategy, but no one can question its effectiveness in swaying reluctant supporters and in dismissing non-supporters as weak naysayers or closeted racists. Proponents of NCLB charged skeptics with the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Even the name of the bill made resistance difficult. Who, after all, wants to admit to leaving a child behind?
NCLB opponents, a constituency that seems to be growing at a rate similar to that of suburban parents finding their schools labeled as failures, have not wilted under the unwavering verbal campaign waged by NCLB advocates. They continue to question the sustainability of a policy requiring schools, particularly poverty-stricken schools, to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
They stubbornly talk about the crushing effects of repeated failures for an increasing number of schools and schoolchildren, who are routinely left behind in the wake of a policy stamped with the "hard racism of unachievable demands."
Regardless of which side one takes in this debate, it is clear that 100 percent proficiency in reading and math, even if achievable, will not end achievement gaps — no more than it will end income and opportunity gaps, which are the primary sources for the achievement gaps to begin with. That is unless we are willing to place a ceiling on achievement at the basic level of proficiency that NCLB performance goals call for.
In 2000, Louisiana was the only state to use a single test to make promotion decisions in elementary school. Now 10 states are doing this, with nine of them among the top 10 in African-American or Hispanic populations.
Twenty states currently require high school exit exams, including the 10 states with the lowest graduation rates. By 2009, 25 states will require exit exams.
Another problem that has emerged since standardized testing was kicked into high gear by NCLB involves a disturbing and continuing trend toward school resegregation and the resulting homogenization of school populations.
It did not take NCLB to begin the resegregation of American public schools. That process started in the 1970s as a result of a number of factors, not the least of which were some critical federal court cases that struck down or watered down federal desegregation orders.
In a recent op-ed piece in the Oregonian, Carol Berkley, a teacher in Portland, passionately protests the test-induced phenomenon in Portland that threatens years of conscious effort to integrate the city’s neighborhoods. Test scores in Portland are now having an impact on property values and home-buying patterns.
Because schools with sizable minorities are finding themselves increasingly on the watch list for failing to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP), students in these schools, both white and minority, are given the opportunity to transfer to other, high-scoring Portland schools.
This creates a brain drain and leads to white flight from the watch-listed schools in integrated neighborhoods, while it discourages new families from moving into these neighborhoods if they can afford to buy elsewhere.
The generalizations drawn from failure of schools to meet AYP in any of the 31 performance category sub-groups leave the public impression that these are failing schools in failed communities.
In order to join the up and coming rather than the down and out, affluent families planning to move to Portland or any other city simply need to check the test scores published alongside the percentages of minority students on Internet sites sponsored by the same companies that rate stocks and bonds. Test scores are providing a convenient vehicle to efficiently resegregate American schools without ever uttering the word "race."
Regardless of a school’s socioeconomic status, there is a decreased likelihood for schools to meet AYP as the number of testing subgroups increases. Thus, there is a clear incentive to discourage the presence of populations that are likely to threaten a school’s chances of making AYP.
Perhaps there is a dawning realization that blaming the schools for botched economic policies may constitute successful diversions that mask more insidious agendas.
But as a basis for school improvement or for democratic ideals, these testing solutions may reflect, in fact, a dangerous and cynical expression of an oppressive form of social engineering paraded about under the banner of economic and cultural liberation.
Jim Horn is assistant professor of educational foundations at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. This column originally appeared in the National School Board Association Newsletter. Used with author’s permission.