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NCLB Thugs Use Muscle Against NC Plan

Kudos to (the rare) principals who choose the well-being of kindergartners over federal money.

North Carolina education leaders sounded a note of victory last week when the U.S. Department of Education announced that the state would
receive up to $154 million during the next six years to improve reading
instruction.

Behind the scenes, they were waving the white flag of surrender.

The state's grant application was awarded only after months of back-and-forth negotiations and three previous proposals that failed to win federal approval. In the end, North Carolina was forced to accept federal demands to test the students who would benefit from the grant --children in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Problem is, state law forbids schools from testing their youngest students with the kind of standardized exams required under the strict
grant program, known as Reading First. That state law must now be rescinded, or amended, for North Carolina to meet the terms of the grant agreement.

It is uncertain whether state legislators will back away from a testing ban that has been in place for the past 15 years and that has long
enjoyed the backing of child advocates.

"I don't see how you can get reliable results with students in those grades," said Rep. Doug Yongue, a Democrat from Laurinburg and chairman
of the House appropriation subcommittee on education.

Testing critics wonder if lifting the ban -- even among students in a few schools -- will open the door to statewide testing of the youngest students.

"It's problematic to introduce anything that resembles standardized tests in early grades," said Sheria Reid, director of the Education and
Law Project at the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center. "When we're done we're going to be testing everyone from kindergarten through 12th grade."

State education leaders say the testing trade-off is necessary to take advantage of resources aimed at helping struggling readers.

"The overriding issue is that all our young children learn to read," said June Atkinson, director of instructional services for the N.C.
Department of Public Instruction.

"This money will be going to schools and districts having the least success," she said. "I think the General Assembly will be very willing to work with us, especially at a time when we have very limited resources."

About 100 schools statewide would be eligible for the grant funds, based on data from last year and on poverty levels and the percentages of third graders failing the state's end-of-grade tests in reading. The list included six schools in Durham.

The funds will be used to train teachers in methods proven through scientifically-based reading research and focusing primarily on phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Much of the 2003-2004 school year would be devoted to planning, with schools launching programs in the 2004-2005 school year. Students would first take year-end tests in the spring of 2005.

Durham schools are undecided about whether they will ask to participate in the program, said district spokesman Michael Yarbrough, but at least one principal said she is skeptical.

"Someone would have to talk with me long and hard about standardized tests in K-2," said Carol Marshall, principal of Durham's George Watts Elementary School. "It would not be welcome here. It would not be beneficial."

Marshall said she has full confidence in the reading program Durham schools follow and the individual assessments they use to measure its
effectiveness.

"What we have in place is very appropriate," she said.

Like many states, North Carolina spent months trying to meet the specific requirements of the federal program, which demands states use
scientifically based reading instruction and prove that students are learning. North Carolina was the 35th state to have its application accepted. Many states had to make repeated tries.

Initially, North Carolina hoped to satisfy the testing requirement with a one-time assessment of students in three earliest grades to establish baseline data. The General Assembly approved that plan last year.

Atkinson said the state also proposed several times that it would follow its existing approach to evaluating students from kindergarten through second grade, with teachers assessing students individually. That failed.

"When we got our third rejection, we realized we would have to do something different with assessments," she said.

Finally, North Carolina said it would use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a widely administered standardized test that had been approved in the applications of other states.

Atkinson said results from the tests will be used only for research and not to make decisions about individual students, such as grade promotion.

Experts in early childhood development are wary of the kinds of standardized tests, given to groups of students, in primary grades.

Donna Bryant, associate director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC Chapel Hill, said she questions the value
of standardized tests given to groups of young children, as opposed to one-on-one assessments.

"How credible are the results?" Bryant said. "I also have a concern about putting too much weight on the test."

Mike Ward, state education superintendent, said any change in the current testing prohibition would need to protect students.

"It would have to include safeguards that assessment didn't turn into something that was high stakes," he said.

— Todd Silberman
Law Standing in Grant's Way
Raleigh News & Observer

July 28, 2003


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