This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
You can’t argue with success, it is often said. In Philadelphia, test scores are up, and 160 schools met their 2004 "adequate yearly progress" targets spelled out under the No Child Left Behind Act. That’s over 100 more schools than made their targets last year.
Teachers, students, and administrators have been working hard, and they should be commended for what they have accomplished. No Child Left Behind, which has been driving school reform across the country, asked them to focus on raising test scores. Most Philadelphia schools achieved what was asked of them under the law. That’s significant as we come to grips with the reality that NCLB will be enforced with renewed rigor if President Bush has his way in his second term.
And yet as schools plunge ahead in the continued pursuit of adequate yearly progress, there are doubts and concerns. It’s worth asking, "Is this truly success?"
Is "adequate yearly progress" how we in Philadelphia want to measure our schools? Isn’t something missing when school performance is reduced to how students did on standardized tests? Does NCLB make sure schools have made meaningful improvements, or does it encourage schools to figure out how to play the AYP game and find strategies that make themselves look better?
From many schools, we hear rumblings that the nation’s obsession with test results and achieving adequate yearly progress is not a healthy direction for education. In teacher descriptions of school life, words that commonly crop up are "stress," "fear," and "frustration." Students as well as teachers are fearful of the threatened consequences if they do not perform well on the standardized tests: that schools could be taken over, students could be held back, teachers could lose their jobs.
Clearly there is diminishing space for teachers to introduce their own creative and challenging lessons. Some major decisions about curriculum content have been turned over to corporate contractors, shifting away from those who know Philadelphia’s schools and communities best. Students complain about "boring" or "deadening" worksheets and materials. Some high school students have spoken up against test preparation activities that selectively pull students out of their core classes to drill for standardized tests. Problems of student disruption at schools across the city should raise concerns about whether these schools are delivering an engaging educational program.
Moreover, some unfair consequences of No Child Left Behind are becoming clear. To name a few:
- School districts, including Philadelphia, have felt obliged to focus on the "bubble kids" – those students who are most likely to get their scores up to proficient – at the expense of others who may have the greatest need.
- School diversity is discouraged. A school can avoid accountability for the performance of a "subgroup" – special education students, English Language Learners, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. – if it limits that group’s numbers to fewer than 40 students.
- Reducing school performance to an all-or-nothing measure – did you or didn’t you "make AYP" – is an arbitrary and inadequate system for classifying which schools are truly "in need of improvement" and which schools are not.
For now, AYP requirements remain the law of the land. But there are steps schools and the School District can take to minimize the collateral damage.
On the school level, the challenges posed by No Child Left Behind are an opportunity to engage the school staff and the whole school community in a school improvement process. Schools should receive support for doing so.
Parent involvement is an unrealized promise of NCLB. In fact, the strategy of strengthening collaborative planning and decision-making has never really been given a chance in the School District. But at every school there are parents, community members, and students who want to be engaged in solving school problems. There is no more powerful force for school change than a cohesive "community of learners" that participates in informed conversations about how to improve achievement for all.
An important next step would be for schools to spell out what goals they will pursue besides making AYP. Some key goals are spelled out in the School Reform Commission’s recently released Declaration of Education. It’s time for targets like getting 80 percent of high school seniors into post-secondary education, narrowing the racial achievement gap, or having an active Home and School Association at every school to be treated with the same urgency as the AYP target that 95 percent of students take the PSSA exam.
Finally, let’s remember that we have celebrated rising test scores before in Philadelphia. The gains in most schools leveled off after a few years, as so often happens. To see sustained improvement, we need to downplay the drills, quick-fix strategies, and obsession with year-to-year movements in scores and focus on providing positive learning environments that help students excel in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Success at that would be a real cause for celebration.