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No Child Left Behind sets students up to fail

For the past 14 years, I worked as a school psychologist in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District. During that time, I came to know well how educational systems operate in New York State. I retired in June 2011, but I continue to work three evenings a week as a counselor at the Ken-Ton Family Support Center. I am concerned about our current educational system.

I fear that No Child Left Behind has resulted in just the opposite scenario. More students are dropping out of school than ever before because they have discovered that they cannot pass all of the tests, even if they have tried three or more times. Instead, they are dropping out and going for their GED, so they can move on with their lives. Many of those who drop out discover that even the GED is beyond their reach. I fear that we are inadvertently creating a large group of young adults who view themselves as "losers."

In the younger grades, children are filled with anxiety, just as their teachers are, regarding the state tests that are required at nearly all grade levels. Because anxiety interferes with learning, students' academic achievement suffers.

In addition, the tests are being used in ways that are not appropriate to their purpose. Instead of serving as information to drive individual student learning and progress, they are being used to assess teacher effectiveness. Groups of students all differ in their innate cognitive abilities, in their socioeconomic status, in their parental support or lack of support, etc. Yet teachers and whole schools are being held accountable for the scores the students' achieve.

Because of Race to the Top, New York State has pushed the academic curricula down so that now our kindergarten students are expected to be reading before the end of their school year. What happened to play time and social skills? Not all children are ready for learning at the same time, especially those young 4-year-olds who turn 5 in late November.

My opinion is that No Child Left Behind is based on several fallacies:

Children are not equal in ability, supplemental educational services or learning potential. It is true that all children can learn, but not at the same rate or potential. The normal curve exists in all populations, with one-half of the population below average. Is it fair to expect everyone to take the same tests to graduate? Are we setting some up to fail?

Some of our children have significant disabilities, which impair their performance on standardized tests. Yet only those children who are classified as intellectually disabled (with an IQ below 70; fewer than 1 percent of our students) are not expected to take the tests. As a result, test results of students with significant disabilities are also included in the combined test results. Schools with high numbers of disabled students are consequently penalized, just because of the nature of their student populations.

No Child Left Behind was initially presented because the federal government indicated that U.S. students were falling behind the achievement of other well-developed nations. Again, the student populations need to be examined. In most European countries, students take rigorous exams at the end of eighth grade to determine which educational track they will follow. Only the highest-scoring students are allowed to pursue the academic track leading to higher education. Those scoring below the cut-offs end up in vocational tracks. Are we comparing apples with oranges?

What do we do with our vocational students? We require that they complete and pass all required Regents tests, as well as their vocational training! What about all those students who would love to learn plumbing, mechanics, carpentry, etc., but cannot pass the Regents exams?

So, is there a solution to this mess? I maintain that the following suggestions be seriously considered:

*Make a universal entry age for school, so that all children must be at least 5 years old before entering kindergarten. Also, consider universal pre-K for all students.

*Reinstate multiple tracks with different exit exams so that all students can graduate with dignity. Those choosing the vocational track could try for the Regents exams if they desired to, but an alternate exam focusing on basic math and life skills should be developed.

*The exams should be psychometrically sound and used appropriately. Scores should be "standard scores" so that they can be compared from year to year to determine student yearly progress. If they are to be used to measure teacher or school performance, the rate of progress should be the measure used, not the overall group score.

*Adequate financial support needs to be given to schools, especially when given more and more state and federal mandates. Schools are being "squeezed" dry, both financially and emotionally.

Linda D. Nelson, Ph.D., is a retired school psychologist living in Kenmore.