BRIGHTON — Ask students in Liz Streb’s seventh-grade class at Siena Catholic Academy what they’ve heard about New York state’s eighth-grade U.S. history test, and half yell out that the test is hard, while the rest note that it’s long.
One of Streb’s jobs is to make sure that her seventh- and eighth-graders are prepared at the end of their eighth-grade year to take the three-hour state test, which is administered over two days and covers two years’ worth of material.
The test is one of several state exams administered annually in public-school and some private-school classrooms as part of tougher academic standards implemented by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization this year.
How NCLB works
When it was signed into law in 2002, lawmakers said the act would increase accountability for poor test results; increase flexibility and local control of school districts; expand options for parents who wished to send their children to other schools; and emphasize proven teaching methods, according to the U.S. Department of Education. States are allowed to develop their own standards and tests, but students also take a national exam to facilitate comparisons among states.
“Thanks to No Child Left Behind, we’ve made tremendous progress in helping more and more students get the education they deserve,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said July 12.
New York’s education department expanded its state testing program to conform with the act. Elementary, middle- and secondary-school students are tested in mathematics and English language arts (ELA). The department also tests elementary and middle-school students in science, and tracks graduation rates of secondary-school students.
Although Catholic and other private schools are not required to administer the state tests, most diocesan Catholic schools follow the diocesan curriculum, which includes the state tests.
Schools and districts that meet minimum state standards on the state tests and graduation rates set by NCLB are said to be making adequate yearly progress. If they do not meet these standards, the schools and/or districts are placed on target-improvement lists. To be removed from these lists, a school or district generally must make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years.
The act uses the provision of federal funding for impoverished children as one means of holding schools accountable. Punitive measures may be implemented against schools that receive this federal funding and do not make adequate progress after being placed on target-improvement lists.
Among the punitive measures employed are requiring schools to transport students who transfer to better-performing schools; pay for tutoring outside school hours; make personnel or curriculum changes; extend the school day or year; or completely restructure the school.
Private and public schools that decline federal funding for disadvantaged students are not subject to the punitive measures, but tests scores from all public schools are still catalogued and evaluated by the state.
The act calls for additional funding for special programs to boost achievement. According to the National Catholic Education Association, both public and private schools are eligible for grants for support programs; reading, language, math and science programs; education for migratory and immigrant children; teacher and principal training and recruitment; technology enhancement; safe and drug-free schools and communities; community learning centers; education innovation; and enrichment for gifted and talented students.
NCEA officials said private-school administrators should work with public school districts — which funnel NCLB funding to private schools — to learn how to participate in the federal grant programs.
Private schools also could benefit from proposed changes to the act. President George W. Bush’s 2008 budget proposal includes scholarships through NCLB that would allow students to transfer to the schools of their choice, including private schools.
Pros and cons
On its Web site, the federal Department of Education maintains that NCLB has achieved results, including more reading progress by 9-year-olds between 1999 and 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined; record math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders and 9- and 13-year-olds; and narrowed reading and math achievement gaps between African-American and Hispanic 9-year-olds and their white peers.
Throughout New York state, fourth-grade math scores rose 11 points between 2002 and 2004, and the achievement gap for African-American and Hispanic students narrowed by 10 points. The federal education department said 70 percent — an increase of 22 percentage points since 1999 — of New York’s fourth-graders met all the English learning standards.
So why aren’t some local educators celebrating?
First of all, they say the law was never funded as promised. According to the Monroe County School Boards Association, the five-year shortfall between the amount of promised NCLB funding and what was delivered stands at $31.45 billion. In 2006, Monroe County alone was shorted by more than $230 million, according to the association.
The government claims the act has led to increased school funding, noting that funding rose 34 percent from 2001 to 2006, and says federal funding for schools serving low-income students also rose 45 percent.
Some private schools say the act has boosted their funding through the grants for specialized programs.
According to the state department of education, in 2006-07 the state’s 503,947 nonpublic school students received $8.87 million in funding for teacher and principal training and recruiting, $2.25 million for enhancing education through technology, $3.43 million in Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities and about $814,000 for innovative programs. Amounts ranged from a few hundred dollars in each category to a few thousand dollars, depending on school size or student need.
NCLB led to an increase in funding for support services for students at the diocese’s six Wegman Inner City Schools — Corpus Christi, Holy Family, St. Andrew, St. Boniface, Cathedral School at Holy Rosary and St. Monica — said Kathleen Dougherty, Cathedral School at Holy Rosary principal. Funneled through the Rochester City School District, the funding is based on the schools’ enrollment and levels of poverty, which are similar to those of Rochester city schools, said Kathleen Dougherty, Cathedral School at Holy Rosary principal.
Funding received by Cathedral School helps pay for a school reading program, technology improvements, professional development and other initiatives.
Holy Family used its NCLB funding in part to start the school’s academic-intervention services program, which allows groups of students to work on a range of subjects in which they need extra help. The school’s previous remedial program was limited to reading, said Holy Family Principal Mary Ellen Wagner.
“With the No Child Left Behind Act, it opens up the services to help all students of all abilities in all subjects,” said Wagner.
Some schools outside Rochester also have benefited. Immaculate Conception School in Ithaca also has been able to establish an academic-intervention services position as a result of greater federal funding through the act.
“(NCLB) has done well because we are able to provide extra help for those students who don’t qualify for special-ed services but who are falling behind,” said Diana Oravec, principal.
Yet others report having lost some funding. Prior to NCLB, the public school district in Auburn, for example, had been using federal funding to supply two remedial teachers to several area schools, including two Catholic schools.
When that federal funding was cut as a result of NCLB reallocations last year, the district withdrew the remedial teachers from Ss. Peter and Paul and St. Joseph schools, said Joann Regets, administrative assistant at Ss. Peter and Paul.
“No Child Left Behind left us without any remedial teachers,” she said.
Now Ss. Peter and Paul School relies on the help of two retired teachers — who previously volunteered in other areas — to provide remedial some instruction. The school’s teachers also have been asked to take over some of the remedial services.
St. Joseph School likewise had to shift some resources to make up for the loss of remedial teachers, said Kathleen Coye, principal.
“We’ve been able to raise some of the funding, and we had some money available to dedicate a person to a part of it, but (the funding shortfall) was a big effect,” Coye said.
Does NCLB work?
One prominent educator asserts that the law certainly doesn’t work for public education.
“I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves,” said Bill Cala, interim superintendent of the Rochester City School District and a parishioner of Fairport’s Church of the Assumption.
“Rochester had a 39 percent graduation rate, which is the lowest we’ve ever had,” Cala said, referring to the state’s measurement of students who were freshmen in 2002 and graduated with Regents or local diplomas in four years. Among incoming freshmen in 2001, 41 percent earned Regents or local diplomas by 2005, and 48 percent earned them by 2006, according to state data.
“(NCLB is) doing exactly the opposite of what was intended,” he said.
Cala said students now receive twice the normal amount of instructional time in ELA and math, at the expense of such subjects such as social studies and sciences.
The act has prompted teachers to overemphasize certain areas of the curriculum at the expense of other areas so that students will perform well on tests, he noted, adding that the law also prevents kids from getting involved in extracurricular activities due to the proliferation of before- and after-school tutoring and remedial programs.
According to Cala, NCLB also fails to recognize that students’ families and schools may not be meeting such basic needs as safety and nutrition, and that the students may not have involved parents or any early childhood education. Children can’t focus on their schoolwork if their basic needs aren’t met, he noted.
“The people who made the regulations of these laws are so far removed from understanding how these kids learn and so far removed from the classroom that it’s a travesty,” he said.
Urban educators attempting to help such students succeed have to cope with a range of problems outside their classroom walls, including a lack of parent involvement and transient populations, agreed Janet Waasdorp, assistant professor in the department of education at Monroe Community College.
Cala said the tests have negatively affected many classrooms because teachers now focus on concepts, not context.
That point was echoed by the president of McQuaid Jesuit High School.
“In the No Child Left Behind Act, there’s such a heavy emphasis on information (at the expense of understanding),” agreed William Hobbs, formerly the principal of McQuaid’s middle and high schools. McQuaid does not participate in the state Regents curriculum because the school contends its curriculum is more rigorous and comprehensive.
Hobbs, who previously was a school administrator in Texas, said he had seen students and teachers at public schools there spend a vast majority of their time preparing for tests. He said he also had heard of instances in which teachers or administrators there were caught fudging the results to avoid punitive measures.
Waasdorp, who facilitates MCC’s Urban Institute, said the best way to prepare students is to stop teaching to tests.
Encouraging individuality and innovation in a classroom can make it difficult for a teacher to evaluate a class of 20 or 30 individuals, Waasdorp said. She said standardized tests are needed to quickly and uniformly assess students, but asserted that weeks are wasted in many classrooms on reviewing for tests, rather than learning new material.
“We can still have students pass a test, but we don’t have to teach and limit ourselves to the material that’s on the test,” Waasdorp said.
Streb said she has been forced to make her classes’ four in-depth projects less time-consuming in order to teach the breadth of material on New York State’s history test. However, she said teachers who teach the state curriculum shouldn’t have to worry about the state tests.
“If the teacher is teaching the New York state curriculum all along, it’s a natural flow, because the state test is on the curriculum,” Streb said.
Cala said NCLB could be improved by eliminating high-stakes testing and punitive measures that can make it more difficult for troubled schools to turn around.
“We can’t be pitting one school against another,” Cala said. “We have an obligation to make every school a quality school.”
Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy for the NCEA, agreed that student evaluations should not be based on one test and that test results shouldn’t pit schools against each other for funding.
Sister McDonald said her organization has not taken a position on reauthorization of NCLB but supports the act’s objectives, including high student achievement, quality education for all students and accountability to standards.
She said NCEA has joined with public-school groups to promote expanded funding for the act’s grant programs.
“We assume it (NCLB) will be reauthorized, and we are trying to make the best of it,” she said.