Campus News

Nancy Jennings Discusses the "No Child Left Behind" Act

Story posted December 06, 2002

Note: During her talk Prof. Nancy Jennings also outlined what Bowdoin does to prepare education students to be placed as teachers in local schools. Watch the Sun for a summary of that part of her talk to be posted soon.

You may recall seeing a front-page story in the Portland Press Herald last July 3 with a headline announcing “19 Schools in Maine on ‘Failed’ List.”

According to the article (by education reporter Tess Nacelewicz), these 19 schools made the U.S. Department of Education’s list of 8,600 public schools nationwide that failed, for two years in a row, to meet state proficiency standards.

Why did those schools make the list, and what is being done to ensure that every child in the state receives a good education?

Associate Professor Nancy Jennings, chair of the education department, addressed this question at a recent Community Lecture on campus, and asked the question, "Can we really 'leave no child behind'?"

The "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 (NCLB) was signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002 in order to “improve education for our children” (see the NCLB Web site at www.nochildleftbehind.gov/index.html.) The law's regulations have just been released.

In a nutshell, Jennings explained, the NCLB law means is that by 2005-06, all K-12 teachers must be certified in the subject area they teach. All schools must come up with curriculum standards for what students are able to do and what they know at the time they graduate. Every state must adopt assessments to measure whether students are meeting the standards in reading, math and science. All schools must show progress in test scores (Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP). All schools will be held accountable for students' proficiency in test scoring. And by 2013-14, all kids in all grades must be scoring proficient.

Schools will be given a failing grade if, for two years in a row, 29% or less of their students score below proficiency levels. That's how those 19 Maine schools made the “failed” list.

According to NCLB, if schools fail for two years in a row, all students will receive vouchers to attend other schools that perform at a "passing" level of proficiency. If they fail for three years in a row, the students will receive federal funding to receive supplemental education (like Sylvan). If they fail four years in a row, educators will start losing their jobs.

If schools start firing their teachers, where will they find replacements?

"Good question," said Jennings. "I don't know."

Nor is there an answer to how "passing" schools will meet the needs of an increased enrollment when students with vouchers start attending.

Jennings emphasized that educators are "not against" the NCLB law. "Who wouldn’t want to improve the education of our children?" She called the NCLB law "revolutionary" and "well intentioned."

But she also spoke for many educators when she expressed concern that the law's timeline and sanctions may be inappropriate.

Jennings pointed to the example of a small or rural school where the biology teacher steps in to also teach chemistry. Under the law, that scenario will not be allowed beginning in the fall of 2005 because the teacher isn’t certified in the second subject. So if the school doesn't have a chemistry teacher, the students can't be taught - and won't learn - chemistry.

Rural schools don’t have access to a large, diverse pool of teachers. That missing chemistry teacher probably isn’t knocking on the door.

How will this translate in a state's test results?

Jennings said that Maine has a pretty good set of tests (which provides the standards known as the Maine Learning Results), but has also set the bar very high. Test scores for those 19 Maine schools on the U.S. Department of Education list are below the acceptable state standards, and, predicts Jennings, "by 2008 all our schools will be marked 'fail'" if they can't report adequate yearly progress (including in such disciplines as special education).

In order to meet the standards and avoid sanctions, states will have to "dumb down" their tests to achieve passing scores, said Jennings.

"Otherwise, all students will be receiving vouchers. Where will the Maine students go? New Hampshire?"

Jennings presented a sample two-part test question to illustrate yet another problem in evaluating proficiency.

Part 1: Divide 1 2/3 by 1/2.

Part 2: Tell a story about why you might use such a math problem.

If you did Part 1 correctly, you came up with 3 1/3.

Perhaps you answered Part 2 like many people do, by saying, "Well, I'm making a recipe for something and I want to make just half the recipe...."

If that's how you answered Part 2, you got the question wrong. In the story you told, you wouldn't want to divide by 1/2. You'd want to multiply by 1/2 (or divide by 2).

Imagine that Student A answered Part 1 correctly, but Part 2 incorrectly. Then imagine that Student B answered Part 1 incorrectly, but Part 2 correctly. Each got one right and one wrong. But are the students equal?

"Which student is smarter? What do their answers represent?" Jennings asked.

"A teacher faces these kinds of baffling questions. How do you score the results? Which student needs more help? Which one really understood the question?"

Student B may have done the math wrong, but s/he had the better understanding of the problem.

Here’s one possible correct answer to Part 2: “The doctor says I have to take a 1/2 pill a day. I have 1 2/3 pills left. So I have enough medicine for 3 1/3 days.”

In conclusion, Jennings warned that when we read in the newspaper a couple of years from now that Maine’s test scores have improved, we should ask: Does that mean NCLB is working? Or does it mean that Maine (or any other state) has lowered its standards in order to “pass”?

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