While critics and proponents of the much-debated No Child Left Behind Act differ on the law's effectiveness at closing the achievement gap, one thing is certain: the law is having its most negative effect on those it was supposed to help - students of color and English language learners.
James Crawford, president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, addressed the NYSUT Ending the Gap symposium on Friday, calling NCLB a diminished vision of civil rights.
"This whole approach to accountability has no scientific legitimacy. There is no evidence this approach has ever worked for kids," Crawford said.
In fact, while there is plenty of evidence that the "test and punish" approach resulting from NCLB has actually increased dropouts, "push-outs" and teaching to the test, civil rights leaders in support of the law say the attention - albeit negative - on low-achieving students is better than no attention.
"It's actually perpetuating a two-tier education system." Crawford said, noting that the eduction of struggling students is more likely to stress test preparation of math and reading at the expense of other subjects.
Supporters, meanwhile, say the law no longer allows schools to ignore the needs of English language learners by excluding their test scores or using overall averages to mask low achievement by some students.
"We're not talking about the opportunity to learn anymore," Crawford said. "The framework for the law is based on the assumption that schools are responsible for the gap and, as a result, there is no need to look elsewhere."
Factors including poverty, inadequate resources, funding inequities between schools and racial segregation are ignored. "NCLB is just playing avoidance of these issues."
Crawford said authentic accountabilty needs to address all obstacles to ELL acheivement, including a shortage of bilingual educators and a serious lack of professional development.
"Forty percent of teachers report having ELLs in their classrooms and on average they receive four hours of professional development," Crawford said. The NCLB testing approach also ignores the unique needs of ELLs, Crawford said. "To give kids equal opportunity, sometimes you have to treat them differently - especially ELLs."
Crawford explained what he called three inconvenient truths not addressed by NCLB:
Most academic assessments for ELLs are neither valid nor reliable. "Tests are normed for proficient English speakers. It takes ELLs four to six years to catch up with native speakers."
ELLs are a diverse population making it difficult to set reasonable targets for adequate yearly progress.
ELL subgroups are constantly changing. "ELLs will never approach 100 percent proficiency. Schools are held accountable for failing to achieve that which is statistically impossible."
Crawford suggested a better alternative to NCLB would take into account valid and reliable assessments; judge schools on academic growth; consider test scores and social issues affecting achievement. Crawford said teachers, not politicians, should be allowed to make pedagogical judgements. And those same educators - along with parents - must be willing to be come advocates for children.
"We need to help schools better serve their kids," Crawford said. "We're all in favor of accountability; It's a legitimate demand. But NCLB is only one possible approach and one that has multiple problems."