Sunday, April 23
NORTH ADAMS — Dana Rapp, an associate professor of educational studies at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has a simple proposal for legislators who support the rigorous standardized testing that comes with federal mandates such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

They should make an example of themselves. They should take the eighth-grade MCAS test, make the results public and explain how the results reflect what they have accomplished in life.

Rapp's skepticism about the value of the law and its consequences comes in part from a recent survey he conducted of 216 Vermont teachers, which showed high-levels of discontent with the law and its consequences for states. It was conducted by the Vermont Society for the Study of Education, and the findings were presented earlier last week in Montpelier.

The study found that 80 percent said they don't think it reflects student needs; 93 percent report "students' love of learning is less" in the face of such testing.

Rapp, who lives in Readsboro, Vt., said the results are not surprising in that teachers are forced to "teach to the test" more, with more worksheets and rote learning and less time for discussions and engagement.

"Students lose the ability to think critically and deeply about ideas," he said. "We're educating a group of people in very shallow ways."

Supporters of the law say it is a successful public policy that has brought accountability and transparency to public schools around the nation.

In testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce earlier this month, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the law has "laid a solid foundation of student achievement." She said that, in the five years since it passed, more reading progress has been made among American 9-year-olds than in the previous 28 years combined.

"This law is raising achievement nationwide by shining a bright light on schools and districts and on a lot of great success stories," she said. "It's also shining a light on schools and districts that aren't doing right by the children and parents they serve."

She noted that 1.4 million students are eligible for free tutoring under Title I, but that only 17 percent of those eligible received the services. Nearly half of school districts didn't tell parents that their children were eligible until after the school year began, she said.

"Without No Child Left Behind, we wouldn't know which schools are falling short of standards," she said. "We wouldn't necessarily know which children needed extra help. And we wouldn't be able to hold grownups accountable when they don't deliver that help."

Rapp said he believes there is some place for quantifiable measurements, but not the high-stakes approach NCLB forces.

"There's probably a place for testing," he said. "But there is not a place for the kind of radical testing that takes over, directs and abuses all other aspects of the school experience."

Although Rapp's report focuses on Vermont, he said that the experience in Massachusetts is worse because of the MCAS system, which has labeled several school districts as underperforming.

"Massachusetts forces, coerces and penalizes districts and withholds funds for any district that isn't fixated by a Dow Jones approach to their test scores," he said.

Rapp, who teaches ethics and curriculum and is the master's thesis adviser for the education program at MCLA, said he tries to get his students to think about the law.

"I ask them to think on their own terms, in their own ways, and to draw their own conclusions about NCLB and its effects. My role as a professor is to make them think about the potentials and pitfalls of it, and students can determine for themselves what it is and what it is about."

Which explains his challenge to legislators to start "a debate, a conversation, maybe a state committee, not to convince the public MCAS is legitimate, but to engage us in a study of it."