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Group challenges No Child Left Behind

I invite this group to join Educator Roundtable. Why would you want to pump more money into a bad bill? Why would you increase teacher training in bad methods for bad purposes?

By Alice Gomstyn

Rockland County educators and community leaders are calling on federal lawmakers to make sweeping changes to No Child Left Behind, an education law that has served as a lighting rod for controversy since its inception.

Signed by President Bush in 2002, the law mandates annual standardized testing in mathematics and English for public school students in grades three through eight. Schools face sanctions if student performance on the tests don't meet certain targets.

"To continue this law as is, with its failure to look at the whole child, with its one-size-fits-all mentality, with its overemphasis on testing and the concomitant loss of experiential learning, may be doing our children more harm than good," said Harriet Cornell, the chairwoman of the Rockland County Legislature.

Cornell spoke at an event yesterday unveiling "Rockland's Voices: Making the Case for Amending the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002," a 72-page report advocating for more funding for NCLB mandates, less frequent standardized testing and the use of alternate assessments to measure student proficiency.

The report was released by the Rockland Education Collaborative, a group co-chaired by Cornell and Rockland Community College president, Cliff Wood, that included 30 Rockland school administrators, teachers, parents, elected officials and members of non-profit agencies.

Several members of the collaborative spoke at yesterday's event. Some offered praise for the law, noting its emphasis on closing achievement gaps and improving performance among groups of students that may have been under-served in the past.

"I'm very glad that No Child Left Behind came into being," said Anne Byrne, a Nanuet Board of Education member and the northeast director for the National School Boards Association. "The reason I am is because we looked at kids that we may not have looked at so closely before ... I thought it was a very good thing that we are now examining how we do business."

But all the speakers, including Byrne, criticized NCLB.

Byrne questioned why "there is no level of accountability" among nonpublic schools that receive millions in federal aid.

"If we're all getting money from some place, we should all be held equally accountable," she said.

Valencia Douglas, the superintendent of the Nyack school district, decried the lack of funding for NCLB mandates - Congress authorized $91.2 billion in federal NCLB spending for the first five years of the legislation, but more than a third of the funding never came through, according to the report - and the financial burden they place on district taxpayers. She said that in Nyack, more than $1 million of the money raised through school district taxes goes to NCLB-related expenses.

Brian Monahan, the superintendent of the North Rockland school district, said his district spends more than $100,000 per year on substitute teachers who fill in for teachers called away to grade standardized tests.

Francisco Garcia-Quezada, the advisor to Aspira of Rockland, spoke about the NCLB provision that allows military recruiters more access to high school students. Under the law, recruiters are provided with the names, phone numbers and addresses of all high school seniors age 17 and up.

Garcia-Quezada, echoing the collaborative's report, said the provision was "unrelated to education and the improvement of standards."

Other issues discussed included the recent directive forcing recent immigrant students in New York to take the same standardized tests administered to native English speakers and concerns about how constant testing affects children's creativity and their enthusiasm for learning.

No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization in the coming year. The collaborative's report devotes more than six pages to recommendations on how to improve the law. Chief among them is funding changes: the group is calling on the federal government to fully fund NCLB mandates, to earmark funds for after-school programs for low-performing schools, and to reimburse school districts for the costs of scoring exams.

The collaborative also advocates changes to the testing regimen, recommending that tests be conducted on alternate years instead of each year, and for additional measures - such as portfolio assessments and classroom participation - to be used in measuring whether a student has met state and national standards.

The report said, on the local level, government officials and residents can also play a role in improving student performance. Affordable housing, early childhood education programs, adult literacy programs and child-health programs could all contribute to the success of children in public schools, the report said.

Cornell said that collaborative members would be visiting Washington, D.C. in several weeks to present the report to members of Congress.

"This is a mission," she said, "and we have just started."

Rockland's Voices: Making the Case for Amending the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

Some recommendations:
- Fully fund NCLB and include money for after-school programs in low-performing schools.

- More training to help teachers meet NCLB mandates.

- Consistent improvement demonstrated among underperforming students - even if those students don't reach standards -should help schools meet annual benchmarks.

- Use more measures - such as portfolios and class participation - to help determine whether a student has met standards.

- Conduct tests on alternate years.

- Eliminate the military notification requirement.

— Alice Gomstyn
The Journal News


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