Almost every Minnesota principal agrees that the federal No Child Left Behind law's main goal is unattainable. A survey of more than 740 principals, conducted in December by Minnesota 2020, found that 97 percent of the state's principals don't think schools will achieve reading and math proficiency by 2014.
"NCLB's goals are as unreasonable as expecting that if we all practice bowling enough we'll all bowl 300s within a few years," one principal wrote. "I believe in high expectations, but high does not mean unreasonable or impossible."
The principals also said NCLB forces schools to take away education in some areas to increase education in others, sometimes called "teach-ing to the test." To improve their standardized test scores, 71 percent say they are spending more time and resources on test preparation and 40 percent say they have taken away class time from arts and other subjects.
NCLB was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001. It requires schools to test students in reading and math and separate the results into subgroups based on race, special education, poverty and English as a second language status. Each state determines which test is used and what constitutes adequate yearly progress. Each year the level of proficiency moves up toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency in 2014. If one subgroup fails, the entire school fails.
Principals generally agreed with the subgroup rankings, except when it comes to testing special education students or students who don't speak English as a first language. Many schools fail to make AYP because of how special education and non-English speaking students perform on the test. Almost 90 percent of the principals say special education students should not be tested at grade level, while 88 percent feel the same about non-English speaking students.
"The people making ridiculous decisions like 'all students will be proficient by 2014' are welcome to come to my school any day so that I can introduce them to each of the students who won't be proficient by 2014, despite making individual progress and personal gains. It is a nice thought, but not at all realistic in the trenches," another principal wrote.
The state has developed the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment-Series II to use as the NCLB test. Unlike other assessments that chart growth through the year and from grade to grade, the MCA-II is a high-stakes test that shows what each child knows on one day. Teachers say MCA-II is an ineffective measure of student development. Only 15.5 percent of principals say the MCA-II is an effective assessment of student achievement while 96.7 percent said that an assessment that measures student growth over many years is more useful than the MCA-II.
Principals say forcing schools to put students through a high-stakes test has caused them to adjust their curricula--put another way, it forces them to teach to the test.
"When all your time is directed to test preparation, the students lose out on problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, creativity, multiple methods for learning, outside resources, and the desire to be a life long learner," another principal wrote.
It is wrong to hold special education and non-English speaking students to the same standards as other students. These students must be tested but at age or grade-appropriate levels. NCLB forbids this.
Tracking student achieve-ment is a valuable goal, but the MCA-II delivers limited value. It forces principals to curtail some subjects in favor of others, perverting the idea of a well-rounded education. Minnesota needs formative assessments that measure individual student progress over time.
NCLB is a deeply flawed program demanding an unattainable end result. Unless the 2014 compliance requirement is changed, Minnesota should drop out of NCLB.
Minnesota has always been a leader in education innovation. Now, our state must blaze its' own trail again, veering away from NCLB and toward a testing and accountability goal that benefits our students and Minnesota's future.
Matt Entenza is Minnesota 2020 Board chairman and John Fitzgerald is Minnesota 2020 Education Fellow