February 3, 2008

NCLB is a bad law

There are actually good things about NCLB. The requirement that schools and districts disaggregate their data by race and income level is awesome, as is the requirement that those subgroups count when districts evaluate the data. It's underfunded, but that's, well, that's education. It's true - John Kerry said it - that "Resources without reform is a waste of money, but reform without resources is a waste of time." But there's not a candidate out there who really wants to fund education the way it needs to be funded. So that's just normal badness, not the extra special badness that would prompt me to write something here.

NCLB is bad because it makes schools spend many hours and great expense collecting basically useless data. Every state gets to make its own test, so the test data aren't comparable. As if that weren't bad enough, the disaggregation all happens differently. Disaggregation is when schools and districts report the scores of subgroups (race/ethnic groups, income categories, special ed), which they are required to do; but if a school has less than a certain number of students in a subgroup, they don't have to disaggregate that subgroup. It's a good system, for student privacy and fairness reasons: if a school has only two students in subgroup x, it doesn't make sense for the school to fail that round of testing because 50% of them (i.e. one student) failed their test, nor is it cool to publish the information that one of the two students failed, since other people in the area can likely figure out who it was. So, ok. For subgroups below size n, you don't have to report the scores of those students. Except wait. What is n? Do we have a national number? Of course not! States set numbers between 5 and 100.

Similarly, every state has to report on its persistently dangerous schools. As of June 2004, there were 38 schools so designated in the whole country. 27 of those are in Philadelphia. None were in Chicago, Detroit, or LA. Artifact of different measurement systems or accurate assessment of reality? I report, you decide.

Every kid between third grade and eighth grade is taking achievement tests, and every district in the country is collecting statistics on violence; this is potentially one of the greatest boons to educational research ever. Except the data are trash, so no go.

Much of this information comes from No Child Left Behind, a reasonably neutral, non-evaluative primer on the law by Frederick M. Hess and Michael J. Petrilli. Hess works at the American Enterprise Institute, Petrilli was a former Bush appointee, but the book is basically an explanation of the law's requirements and how states are dealing with them. I'm reading it for class.

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