Pros and cons of NCLB: What the research says

iStock_000011758998XSmallThe pros and cons of NCLB often seem to cancel each other out in the debate over this controversial law. In a recent issue of Applied Measurement in Education, Lihshing Wang and a team of researchers from the University of Cincinnati bring a third evidence-based perspective to the pros and cons of NCLB by examining the research on the four following issues:

1. assessment-driven reform;
2. standards-based assessment;
3. assessment-centered accountability; and
4. high-stakes consequences.

“Only a handful of scholars and practitioners have argued in defense of standardized tests,” write Wang and fellow researchers Gulbahar H. Beckette and Lionel Brown. However, there is emerging evidence that high-stakes assessment is a potent force for bringing about improvements in student learning.

The researchers present the pros and cons of NCLB for each of the four interrelated issues and then offer a critical synthesis based on their review of the research.

1. Assessment-driven reform

Pro arguments

Assessment-driven reform is needed to counter declining trends in SAT and ACT scores and the mediocre performance of U.S. students in international rankings such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), proponents argue. Assessment-driven reform can have a powerful influence on school curriculum and reform, if tests are carefully designed to be consistent with the kinds of learning desired in the classroom and if there is a tight connection between cognitive learning theory, the curriculum, classroom activities and assessment items.

Con arguments

SAT scores declined during the 1970s and 1980s because more students aspired to go to college and took the tests, not because of performance factors. There has been an upward trend in the 1990s and into the 2000s. The Department of Education statistics show improvement in areas such as a decrease in dropout rates and an increase in high school students taking advanced courses and Advanced Placement examinations. Standardized tests undervalue the “sensitive interaction between teachers and their students in the complex, social system of the classroom.” The real problem with the education system is the fundamental misdesign of schools, lack of qualified teachers and the instability of families and communities.

Synthesis view

While there are encouraging statistics on domestic educational performance, American school children do not seem to perform well in international rankings. “It seems clear that in the world of increasing globalization, the U.S. educational system can and should do better,” the researchers conclude. The goal of using tests is not just to measure performance but also to drive changes in alternative instructional materials, learning models and staff development.

2. Standards-based assessment

Pro arguments

It is desirable to agree on a common core of knowledge that teachers should teach and students should learn. Without common standards, it is difficult to compare grades across teachers and schools because of local norms.

All students, regardless of socioeconomic status, race or disability, should be expected to meet common standards that challenge them to acquire content and skills that are more than just minimum requirements. Neuroplasticity research in the past decade has shown that “the critical period for learning is now considered regulatable through environmental enrichment and mental force throughout life.”

In a nationwide survey by the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, a majority of teachers supported their state content standards and more than one half reported that their state-mandated test is based on a curriculum that all teachers should follow. In public polls, there is wide support for assessment.

Con arguments

By imposing standards on students’ minds we are, in effect, depriving them of their fundamental intellectual freedom by applying one standard set of knowledge. Standardized tests oversimplify knowledge and do not test higher-order thinking skills. State standards are externally imposed on local teachers.
These mandatory assessments cannot work unless teachers understand and accept the philosophical underpinnings of standards. One-size-fits-all standards either dumb down instruction to the lowest common denominator or condemn low-ability students to frequent failure

Synthesis view

Few would argue against the noble goal of helping all children meet the same set of high standards. Neurocognitive research provides strong evidence that the human brain is adaptable well into adulthood. However, genetic signals play a large role in the initial structuring of the brain and there is a a limit to how much and how quickly cells enlarge and add synapses. This suggests that the human mind may lose its plasticity in learning after reaching a certain age. There is a learning cap determined by genetic as well as socioeconomic factors that determines how far and fast a student can develop during their school years. The NCLB’s requirement that all children must reach the same set of standards at the same time fails to acknowledge this.

3. Assessment-centered accountability

Pro arguments

Standardized testing is the best alternative for comparing student performance across different education systems because human judgment is error-prone. Decades of evidence show that the quality of teachers’ tests pales compared with more rigorously developed large-scale tests. When used for purposes of accountability, standardized tests can provide more objective and less ambiguous evidence. In one international study that looked at the effects of dropping and reintroducing standardized tests in 29 industrialized countries, academic standards declined, students studied less, curricula became incoherent and selection and promotion became arbitrary after standardized tests were dropped.

Con arguments

Important learning outcomes are not measured by standards testing. Only self-generated professional responsibility can sustain fundamental school and student improvement. To guide instruction, teachers should constantly look for evidence from a variety of sources to make sense of what is happening in their classrooms.

Standardized tests measure little more than socioeconomic status, and teachers and administrators should not be held responsible for that or should a fourth-grade teacher be held accountable for her students’ test scores when those scores reflect all that has happened to the children before. Standardized tests fail to differentiate instruction for different kinds of kids without condemning low-achieving students to boring and unproductive schooling.

Synthesis view

Educators have the duty to help students break hereditary and environmental barriers. A well-established accountability system must make sure that the process of accountability is legal. Without adequate funding for test development and personnel training, the accountability mandate is likely to be challenged on legal grounds. There needs to be an evaluation mechanism that captures the individual contribution of a teacher and recognizes the preexisting differences in students. The current NCLB goal of bringing all children to a level of proficiency by 2014 has been projected to be unattainable. Holding students, teachers and administrators accountable for reaching an unattainable goal will lead to unintended negative consequences.

4. High-stakes consequences

Pro arguments

Assessment-based accountability is possible only when high stakes are associated with the results. Educators must inform themselves about their content, construction and consequences. There is a “trickle-down effect” on teachers in that they must become more reflective and critical of their classroom instruction. One reason the American educational system has failed is because there have not been high stakes for failure. Realistically, students will only read a play by Shakespeare if they will be tested on it in a final exam.¬† High-stakes testing has the unintended consequences of improving professional development. A number of studies have found a strong positive relation between high-stakes consequences and performance on assessments.

Con arguments
The behaviorist theory underlying high-stakes accountability oversimplifies how human behavior is conditioned by rewards and punishments. Decades of research has shown that extrinsic sources of motivation such as stars, stickers and grades actually undermine natural curiosity and a student’s enjoyment of learning. Punitive consequences achieve temporary compliance at the cost of demoralizing teachers and students.

The fundamental criticism of high-stakes accountability systems is that they rely excessively on extrinsic motivation at the expense of intrinsic motivation. Some of the negative consequences of high-stakes accountability systems include higher dropout and retention rates, lower motivation, teaching to the test, unethical test preparation, etc. Some reports of gains have been discredited as test-polluting practices such as excluding students or higher dropout rates.

Synthesis view

There is emerging evidence that high-stakes state assessment is a potent policy for bringing about positive changes in student learning. In a re-analysis of the gain comparison between state assessment and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), average NAEP increases were much higher in high-stakes schools compared with no-stakes schools.

In response to criticism that gains in those school could be due to high dropout and exclusion rates, the authors cite a study (Phelps 2003) that reanalyzed the dropout rates and found that they were below the national average and that the exclusion rates were the same as the rest of the nation. “Whether such extrinsically motivated score improvement can sustain life-long learning and whether such positive effects offset the negative consequences, however, remain to be seen,” the researchers conclude.

Recommended research agenda 

The debate about standardized testing will continue and the pendulum will continue to swing. The researchers recommend the following action research agenda:

  • Develop classroom-level diagnostic tests for evaluation aligned with state-level standardized tests.
  • Include classroom teachers and cognitive-developmental and social psychologists in state assessment panels to achieve meaningful alignment of content standards and classroom curriculum.
  • Offer computerized adaptive testing so that students of diverse ability levels can meet learning goals that are tailored to their current ability level.
  • Conduct research in accountability with value-added methodology which measures residual gain or loss between a student’s achievement score and his or her projected score to better isolate school and teacher effects.

Controversies of Standardized Assessment in School Accountability Reform: A Critical Synthesis of Multidisciplinary Research Evidence,” Lishing Wang, Gulbahar Beckett and Lionel Brown, Applied Measurement in Education Volume 19 Number 4 2006 pps. 305-328.

Published in ERN November 2006 Volume 19 Number 8

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