Mark Twain once said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
That very sentiment can easily be applied to the No Child Left Behind debate, as many school officials have questioned whether this legislation actually interferes with providing school students a well-rounded and quality curriculum.
Signed into law by President George W. Bush on Jan. 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act significantly changed federal education policy for grades kindergarten through 12. Notably, it requires standardized testing for all students in English and math every year in grades 3 through 8, as well as once in high school. NCLB has put pressure on U.S. primary and secondary schools to improve the academic performance of all students, and many school districts have certainly progressed, but not without many opponents raising an important question: At what cost?
Large numbers of student advocates, including school counselors, have criticized NCLB’s stringent accountability and strict testing requirements, claiming its implementation is too costly, narrows the curriculum and does not take into consideration the unique needs of every student. Proponents of education reform say the legislation has exposed the achievement gap between minority and nonminority students, as well as performance discrepancies between disadvantaged and affluent students.
NCLB is the name given to the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which is due to expire this year. As Congress looks to “reauthorize” — extend or revise — the federal statute, school counseling professionals weigh in on what’s working and what needs to change to ensure that, in fact, no child is left behind.
“(NCLB’s) overall objective of trying to reach 100 percent proficiency in both reading and math by the year 2014 is not only unrealistic, but impossible to achieve. But I think it’s typical of how politicians think, as opposed to education professionals,” says Ted Martinez, an American Counseling Association member and school counselor with the New London Public School System in Connecticut. “Politicians have to have some end point, so they put 2014.”
“(NCLB) has a strong emphasis on accountability and intense testing. I’m not for or against it, nor argue the merits of whether every grade should be tested, but I think it is unrealistic to subject kids from other countries to these high-stakes tests when they don’t even know the language. It’s really unfair and that’s my biggest concern,” says Martinez, who works with a large population of ELL (English language learner) students in his district.
“You have to be able to speak, read and write the English language if you are going to be able to negotiate your existence in this society. I think 98 percent of them absolutely want to do that. But to subject them to this kind of testing is incredibly frustrating. If you don’t know the language, how are you going to measure something that they don’t even have?”
Martinez adds that, in his opinion, the tests aren’t student friendly, and he doesn’t think that relying solely on test scores for accountability is an adequate gauge of a school’s level of achievement with students. “The question is, do you want these kids to achieve or fail? If you don’t supply them with the resources to acquire the skills that they need, testing them all the time isn’t going to help them learn the English language.”
Carolyn Stone, past president of the American School Counselor Association, a division of ACA, is a school counselor educator at the University of North Florida. She has 22 years of experience in the field of education as a teacher, counselor and supervisor.
“Because I was an educator who was around before NCLB, and because I saw firsthand what happens to students when there is no accountability, I am a very strong supporter of standards for kids. It really holds the educators who are in charge of these young lives and their learning accountable for what happens. That said, high-stakes testing has really done a disservice in many respects to students.”
Stone feels strongly that schools should be allowed to use different forms of assessments for students and that “success” shouldn’t be defined by one test. “We know enough about assessments that we should be able, as a nation, to use different types of assessments and even multiple assessments to determine a student’s grasp and competence within standards. Standards are good, but high-stakes testing is not necessarily (good).”
With 16 years of experience as a school counselor educator, ACA member Paula Stanley has a different perspective on the effects of NCLB. In working with her interns at Radford University in Virginia, she has noticed a change in the perceived roles of school counselors in the past few years. So much so, she says, that several individuals have entered the university’s school counseling program only to change their specialty upon realizing that they may not get to work with students in the capacity they had assumed.
“There is just so much paperwork that they feel like they are not able to assist the students adequately, and it’s really not what they went into counseling for. They want to have direct contact with students, and they are finding it really frustrating managing all the paperwork and also trying to fill their role as a counselor, as indicated by the ASCA standards. You have counselors who don’t feel like they have the time to work with students on developmental needs. In most cases, the school counselors are in charge of managing the assessment, managing the success of students over time and working with special needs children. They are already overworked and not able to provide the counseling and services they want to. With NCLB, their role has become even more administrative.”
Interns are also finding it increasingly difficult to meet the required 120 direct service hours per semester for their internship, Stanley notes. “Because NCLB (student test results are) tied to funding, teachers don’t want students to leave the classrooms, so it gets more difficult for counselors to have access to the students who could benefit from their services.” She adds that school counselors really do value students’ academic success just as much as their social development and vocational aspirations, and school counselors are willing to work with teachers and administrations in becoming more accountable.
However, Stanley says, reducing the developmental role of school counselors ultimately works against student success. “The focus is just on making students pass this test, but some of the reasons why students aren’t doing well on the tests are personal or social. They may have feelings of low self-worth or confidence, or they may have problems at home. They come to school with these problems burning inside of them, and it’s hard for them to focus on their schoolwork.” Given the chance and time, school counselors can help these children with coping skills and even encourage parents to get more involved with their child’s academic success, she says.
Stanley admits the data gained from analyzing test scores can be beneficial as a means of proving the vital role of school counselors and their services. However, she says, “Someone with much less than a master’s degree can count out tests. School counselors feel that their skills aren’t being used, and much of the work (associated with administering the tests) can be done by clerical staff. The negative aspects of NCLB do seem to be more prominent in school counselors’ minds.
“It’s really affecting how we train counselors, the choices that students make in their counseling specialty and, ultimately, their choices once they have entered the school counseling profession. It’s affecting all three points of that continuum.”
A school counselor at Salisbury Elementary in Gap, Pa., Christopher Laudo’s perspective is that, although there are serious flaws in how NCLB is written, the legislation has ushered in a great opportunity for innovation and change. “By making the status quo unacceptable, the federal mandates of NCLB have served to create an unparalleled sense of urgency that has resulted in serious efforts to address equity and social justice. For school counselors, it has meant that we can no longer sit on the fence and debate whether we should be running a data-driven program. Because other professionals in the school setting are required to show their impact on student academic success, school counselors must hold themselves to the same standard.” If school counselors fail to demonstrate their impact on student success or take a leadership role in helping to remove systemic barriers to student success, Laudo says, they run the risk of being perceived as unnecessary.
“This switch to more of a systems focus has resulted in having some very powerful conversations with my principal. Through the problem-solving process, as we share data and look to remove barriers to learning, we have formed an even stronger alliance. Before NCLB, such conversations might have been too uncomfortable or awkward to have. Now, thanks to NCLB, they are a necessary part of the growth process of the school.”
Serving the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina for more than 13 years, ASCA President Eric Sparks says he has witnessed several positive aspects of NCLB. “It’s helped us to focus on data and look to see which students are being successful and which students need help. It really fits in well with the ASCA model in terms of using data to identify students who aren’t being successful academically or behaviorally. In that respect, it has helped school counselors show how they are contributing to the overall goals of the schools.”
Sparks adds that there are some major dilemmas surrounding NCLB, the biggest being funding — or the lack thereof. “There are issues on how the formula is set up in terms of how schools are evaluated, so that has been a challenge to some of the schools.” He says many schools don’t think they have the resources they need to help all students achieve and meet the NCLB standards. He also notes that the number of subgroups as defined in NCLB, which takes into account minority students, English as a second language and socioeconomic status, can vary greatly between schools. “We have schools that range from four or five subgroups all the way up to 24 to 25 subgroups. The intent of NCLB is good in that you are looking at all of your students and making sure that all are progressing toward academic achievement, but keeping up with all the subgroups can be challenging for schools.”
On the other hand, “The focus on data has really helped us to move from making decisions on what we think is best for students to making decisions that are based on the outcome data.” Sparks adds that the data are essential when determining what is actually working to benefit student success. “We can look at the data and rethink our efforts and refocus our activities and programs.”
The temptation for elementary and intermediate schools is to concentrate on the curriculum covered in the standardized tests (“teaching the test”) and ignore other areas such as the arts, sciences and social studies, Sparks acknowledges. “We hear anecdotally, from teachers, counselors and administrators from around the country, that those areas aren’t being emphasized as much as they have been in the past because more resources go toward language arts and math. That could have a negative impact on students in the long run if schools don’t take measures to counteract that. If we aren’t providing activities for students to participate in the arts, we are really missing out on opportunities to help the development of the overall student. Students who do participate in the arts, there’s research that shows they do better in other areas, like math and language.” He adds that nurturing talent and encouraging students in extracurricular ventures promotes self-confidence and provides balance.
“We do hear also that the level of stress on students has increased. We are hearing that from teachers and counselors alike. As school counselors are working on their plans and programs for their schools, a lot of times they are adding in additional emphasis on ways to cope with stress, anxiety and providing workshops on test-taking skills. (But) while there are a lot of challenges to NCLB, before NCLB, it was easy to just look at school data as a whole and not really dig in and see who isn’t being successful. Now we can help more students achieve in school.”
A high school counselor at Bloomington High School in California, Delores Curry says it’s important for school counselors to advocate for themselves to be included in the rewriting/
reauthorization of NCLB as a necessary component in student achievement. “One of the concerns we have as the school counseling profession is making sure that when the legislation talks about ‘school personnel,’ school counselors are included within that group. As with any policy or legislation that must be followed, there’s always going to be those who are happy and those who are not.”
Overall, she believes NCLB has helped ensure that schools are making services and programs available to both subgroups of students and individual students who are struggling to meet NCLB standards. “With NCLB, you are identifying students and catching students that may have been tossed to the wayside before.”
Organizations grade NCLB
According to the ASCA position statement on high-stakes testing, “High-stakes tests can penalize schools and students for factors over which they have no control, such as socioeconomic influences, naturally occurring yearly fluctuations or a student’s state of readiness to perform on the day of the test. The scores resulting from high-stakes tests do not take into account important factors such as a school’s adequacy of educational funding, lack of standardization of the test’s administration, interpretation and scoring, potential errors in scoring or barriers to student performance. The testing results do not necessarily indicate student learning.”
While ASCA supports the use of standardized tests as one of many measures of student and school achievement and success, it rejects the use of high-stakes tests or any other single measurement instrument. According to ASCA’s position statement, “The professional school counselor encourages multiple measures when life-influencing decisions are being made.”
In a recent survey conducted by Teachers Network, more than 5,600 public school teachers from all 50 states were questioned on the effectiveness of NCLB and its impact on schools. Only 37 percent found standardized testing “somewhat useful.” Less than 1 percent agreed that it was an effective way to evaluate the quality of schools.
ACA Assistant Director of Public Policy and Legislation Chris Campbell says that, although not optimum, NCLB was a good start to education reform. “(ACA) strongly supports the main purpose of NCLB: to afford all children an equal opportunity to receive a quality education and, in doing so, to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers,” Campbell says. “ACA believes that highly qualified teachers are critical to student achievement. However, if children are not physically and mentally prepared to learn, the best classroom instruction will not produce the desired results.”
Work on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (i.e., NCLB) is picking up speed, according to Campbell. In August, the House Education Committee released a preliminary proposal to reauthorize ESEA. Following release of the draft language, ACA joined other education groups in submitting comments. The House Education Committee’s draft legislation would maintain requirements that states continue to assess students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and in high school. However, the draft legislation would also authorize states to use new methods of tracking progress toward subject proficiency goals required to be met by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
According to congressional staff, the Education committees in both the House and Senate were preparing to mark up their bills to reauthorize the legislation as early as the week of Oct. 22. While it was anticipated that a bill might be introduced on the floor of the House in early November, consideration of an ESEA reauthorization bill in the Senate was not expected until early next year.
For more details on the reauthorization process, read Washington Update on page 11. To monitor continuing updates on NCLB reauthorization proceedings, visit www.counseling.org/PublicPolicy/.