New Jersey schools will be better off without the constraints of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), says a policy expert at the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).
Moreover, the time and money saved by focusing on strengthening individual student growth instead of teaching to a flawed test will benefit the Collingswood school district, according to Superintendent Scott A. Oswald.
Dawn Hiltner, NJEA Associate Director for Organizing and Coalition Building, said opting out of NCLB “will give New Jersey some relief” from meeting the unrealistic standards of the legislation.
“Under No Child Left Behind, we were supposed to have 100 percent proficiency [in all subjects tested] by 2014,” Hiltner said. “That’s a benchmark that’s impossible to reach.”
Oswald described NCLB as “a one-size-fits-all accountability system” that is measured differently from state to state.
“It makes some really good sound bites to say that 100 percent of kids are going to be proficient in this and that,” he said. “The reality is that students have different strengths. Nobody’s ever going to get every kid to jump that bar because every kid’s different.”
According to both Oswald and Hiltner, there will be no negative financial implications for New Jersey in waiving its participation in NCLB. Collingswood receives some federal money through the U.S. Department of Education under Title I, but its eligibility fluctuates annually based on the poverty level of students in residence, Oswald said.
“Last year Garfield, Sharp, and the middle school were Title I. Newbie jumps in and out, because it depends on your average free and reduced lunch rate in the district,” he said.
“There are more exceptions to the rule than the rule itself.”
A moving target
NCLB detractors criticize its insistence on standardized testing scores, which Hiltner says “sets schools up for failure” by over-emphasizing the failures of underperforming students, including non-native English speakers, children in poverty, and special education students.
“[Lawmakers’] intentions were good,” Hiltner said. “They didn’t want to mask a school as being a high-achieving school if these subgroups were underperforming.”
Due to these constraints, however, NCLB is more likely to unfairly penalize a school where children fall into more than one disadvantaged category, she said.
“If you have a child in the gifted program, his scores only count once,” Hiltner said. “If you have a child who is economically disadvantaged, speaks Spanish at home, and is special ed, his score is going to be reported four times.”
Comparatively, Hiltner said, statewide scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) paint a more accurate picture of student achievement in the Garden State. By NAEP metrics, New Jersey usually ranks as high-performing, in the top three or five states nationwide.
“What a lot of states have done [to meet NCLB requirements] is lower their standards so more kids test as proficient,” Hiltner said. “In New Jersey we have very high standards for all children, [and] in some ways, on paper, that works against us.
"There’s so many ways to skew data to show things that aren’t there,” she said.
Focusing on programs that work
Hiltner believes there are a few reasons New Jersey was allowed to waive its participation in NCLB. For one, the state will pilot a teacher evaluation program that addresses calls for tenure reform. Secondly, she says that New Jersey has a good track record of supporting its teachers’ professional development, which is another priority of the legislation.
Finally, Hiltner pointed to a shift at the Department of Education towards establishing regional achievement centers that would provide financial assistance to the neediest school districts, allowing them to direct money to individual schools that most need it.
“I think that it helps the state continue to focus on programs and on school reforms that really work instead of unfairly punishing schools that are working hard to meet the needs of their students,” Hiltner said.
Relieved of NCLB oversight, Oswald said Collingswood will focus on a student growth model that measures children’s academic progress at the beginning and end of each school year.
“If somebody comes in as the slowest runner in the class, that kid can grow the most by the end of the year, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to be the fastest runner,” Oswald said.
Thanks to a new reading curriculum, he said, Collingswood students are improving their literacy “at a wonderful rate for their grade levels,” with many exceeding the average mark. Oswald promised improvements in math will follow once a similar model can be implemented.
“My three questions that I ask are: what are we teaching—curriculum—how do we know the kids are getting it—the assessment piece—and what are we doing for those who don’t?”