With regards to my education, I’m glad I went to elementary school in the 1990s rather than the 2000s. Maybe it’s because I was too young to know the politics behind educational policy, but my own schoolgirl experience seems freer and more stimulating compared to the experience of schoolchildren today.

Jessica Boullion
Rachel Wagner

When I look back on my elementary school days, I remember field trips, class plays and science fairs. I imagine most college students nowadays have similar memories, but I fear that many future college students will recall a much bleaker scenario. This will be a past stripped of arts and sports programs, spoon-fed with a narrowed curriculum and crammed with constant standardized testing.

No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s educational manifesto, has unfortunately led to many of these consequences. However, unlike some of his other policies, this one was at least good at heart. It’s hard to criticize the desire to fix failing schools and close racial and economic achievement gaps, but NCLB needs some revamping to accomplish these lofty goals.

The backbone of NCLB is a series of standardized tests in reading and math administered once a year from third to eighth grade and once during high school. These tests are supposed to show which schools are making “adequate yearly progress” and which are “failing,” yet the numbers aren’t matching up with reality.

One problem is what’s called the “race to the bottom.” Children take two sets of tests, a state test and a national assessment test. However with the punitive measures against failing schools, the states often design easier, watered-down tests to inflate their students’ scores and keep their schools afloat. In 2005, Mississippi reported that 89 percent of its fourth graders were proficient in reading. Yet, when the same students took the national test, only 18 percent of them were deemed proficient.

Another problem is that even when schools are dramatically improving, if they don’t meet the level of adequate yearly progress they are still considered failing. A school could have fourth graders who started the year reading at a first grade level and raise them to a third grade level, but they would still be marked failing because they didn’t make it to a fourth grade level within the year.

A potential solution to the NCLB woes could be the growth model, already in place in a dozen states. The growth model follows the progress of individual students through the years, as opposed to contrasting one year’s class with the last year’s class.

The growth model offers a fairer way to determine progress. While schools would still maintain the goal of getting kids up to grade level, with growth models they would not be punished for making substantial progress even if it wasn’t quite up to the national benchmark. It would also give a more specific measurement of how all students, from advanced classes to special education, are performing. It would be an accountable yet flexible tool, offering the carrot more than the stick.

Is the growth model the perfect way to measure progress in education? I’d say no, but neither is standardized testing the magical cure-all of education problems. Standardized testing is necessary to ensure teachers nationwide cover core principles and to give some sort of performance gauge, yet making progress in education is about attitude as well as numbers.

We would make a critical move forward in education if we could foster and maintain a positive attitude towards learning, which is usually lost by middle school. If we could get kids to value their education and keep their enthusiasm for learning, we would probably see big jumps in test scores.

Too bad you can’t take a person’s attitude into account on a multiple-choice test.

Rachel Wagner can be reached at rachwag@umich.edu.

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