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The Politburglar was reading over the Nation’s Report Card. Obviously, because of how important these tests are, and what these tests mean for our nation’s future, it is very difficult to look at this report card in a rational manner. Regardless of what these results will say, people are predisposed to view the No Child Left Behind act as either good or bad depending upon their political persuasion; depending upon their own biases. I think that it is important however to attempt to look at these results with as an unbiased view as possible. If we do that, what does it say about our nation’s schools today?

First of all, the report card shows that in fourth and eighth grade, among all races, schools in this country have made significant progress over the last 15 to 20 years. And I mean significant progress.

The report card for fourth graders in 2007 demonstrates that between 1990 and 2007, average fourth-grade math scores rose approximately 15%. As you can see from figure 2 on page 2, scores have risen across all percentiles. In fact, the lowest 10th percentile has risen approximately 20% during that period. Scores in the highest 10th percentile rose approximately 10% during that period. Students in the 75th percentile in 2007 are performing better than students in the 90th percentile did in 1990. Students in the 50th percentile in 2007 are performing better than students in the 75th percentile did in 1990. In 1990, only 50% of fourth graders performed at or above basic in math. By 2007, 82% of fourth graders achieved basic scores and nearly 40% scored at or above proficient. No matter which way you look at it, fourth-grade math performance has improved dramatically.

If you look at page 3, you see the progress made across all races during the 17 year. Historically, white students have performed better on these tests then black or Hispanic students. While the performance gap has narrowed only somewhat during the period in question, it is significant that in 2007 both black and Hispanic students in fourth grade perform on average at a higher level than white students did in 1990.

Table 3 on page 4 provides a demographic breakdown of the student population during the 17 year. Notice that between 1990 and 2007 percentage of white students has fallen from 75% to 57%. In addition, while in 1990 white and Asian students represented 76% of the student body, in 2007 together they represented 62%. Because these two higher performing racial groups now account for a smaller percentage of the overall student population, the overall rise in average test scores is even more impressive than the raw averages seem to indicate.

If you scroll down to page 9 of the fourth-grade math report card you see a proficiency breakdown by state. Kudos need to go out to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont, among others. As you might expect, the Southern states tend to be the laggards. The District of Colombia is just pathetic. No big surprise there.

There is also a mathematics report card for eighth graders. As you’ll see, while progress has been made in each grade mathematics scores, average scores have not risen during the 17 year period as much as they have for fourth graders.

As with the fourth graders, students in the 75th percentile in 2007 are now performing as well as students in the 90th percentile did in 1990. As we move down the performance of latter, scores have not risen for eighth graders as much as they have for fourth graders. As demonstrated in figure 13 however, over 70% of eighth graders performed at or above basic level in 2007, as opposed to 52% of eighth graders in 1990.

As contrasted with fourth graders, Figure 14 on page 3 demonstrates that black and Hispanic students are both performing at a level significantly below white students were in 1990.

No Child Left Behind

The statistics seem to bear out that over the last 17 years between 1990 and 2007 our nation’s schools have achieved significant gains in the math scores of both fourth and eighth graders. These statistics refute the gloomy view which most people have of our nation’s school systems. Obviously we hope that these trends continue, and that the performance gap between various races can be narrowed. The performance gap must also be narrowed between various states. It doesn’t make us a Pollyanna however to a knowledge that we may be doing something right. The question now however, as Congress debates renewal of the No Child Left Behind act, is how we proceed.

From the enaction of the the No Child Left Behind Act, people have had very strong views about this law and about what they thought the results of this law would be. Conservatives who wanted to keep the federal government out of education didn’t like it. Liberals who dislikes President Bush didn’t like it. People of all political persuasions, for various other reasons didn’t like it. I think that some of the criticisms of the act have merit. Perhaps a lot of merit. I would like to address however, what I believe to be the most common criticisms of the No Child Left Behind Act.

I believe that the main criticism of the act comes in many forms but is really one criticism. Whether the criticism is stated as the act encourages rote memorization; that the act encourages “teaching to the test” or that the act takes away a teacher’s individual ability to reach children and to teach, it is really all the same criticism. While I believe these criticisms are really in fact one criticism, I will address them separately.

First, when you are young, there is nothing wrong with rote memorization. Two plus two always equals four. If you are learning to read the phrase see Dick run, there is no need to interpret this phrase. Look at Dick run. The things that you learn when you are young are the foundation of everything that you learn later. They are the simple rules to live by. They are the basis for everything else that comes next. There may or may not be better ways to keep Cheney the phrase see Dick run. But in the end it is always spelled the same way, it is always pronounced the same way, and in first grade, it always means the same thing. Later in life you can get into a great existential debate about why Dick is running, or where Dick is running, or even what Dick is running from. But for a first grader, all they need to know is the collection of consonants and vowels and the words that they spell.

A second criticism is that the act encourages teaching to the test. First, if the test is wrong, or covers the wrong topics then I can see that this criticism is valid. First and foremost, a nationally standardized test needs to cover the topics and educational needs of the student body in a way that best promotes their educational needs. As I do not have access to these nationally standardized tests I can make no comment on how well they perform this task. Assuming arguendo, however, that this test is the best test that can be designed for this purpose, then the criticism that the act encourages teaching to the test does not hold water. If the test is a good test, then teach to it. Are you telling me that every other test that students take doesn’t cover the information that the students have just been taught? One of the biggest criticisms of teachers and schools that students make, not just parents or adults, is that throughout Dare years in school. They are taught rote memorization and the tests cater to what you have just learned so that you can remember it for the test and forget it later. Let me quote what I believe is the poet Laurette of our time, Connor Oberst of Bright Eyes in his song Let’s Not Shit Ourselves: “well my teacher’s they build this retaining wall of memory. All those multiple choice’s I answered so quickly, and got my grades back and forgot just as easily, well at least I got in A, and so I don’t have been to blame.

So, if this is been going on forever, then these nationally standardized tests are no worse than the tests that we have been taking for the last 50 years. Again, let me reiterate that the format and accuracy of these tests becomes paramount. These tests are important, and we should have our best people making sure that these tests are the best tests that we can design. Assuming again however that this is the case then the criticism of teaching to the test is really no criticism at all.