Education professor Lizanne DeStefano is an expert on assessment and testing, and has evaluated numerous state and federal initiatives aimed at improving schooling - including those associated with the "No Child Left Behind" legislation up for reauthorization this fall in the U.S. Congress. DeStefano, who is also the executive associate dean for research and administration in the College of Education, was interviewed by News Bureau education editor Craig Chamberlain.
A common perception is that most teachers dislike "No Child Left Behind" because of its testing requirements and pressures to "teach to the test." How true is this and what effect has it had?
I think it's fairly accurate to say that most teachers dislike the testing requirements. They see a direct link between the tests, the school's ability to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), and their own career futures and how they're judged as teachers. And certainly in many districts you see a greater emphasis on teaching the subjects that are tested and less attention paid to subjects that are not. On the other hand, NCLB has resulted in an upgrade of the curriculum, particularly in math and reading, in many school districts, and in a greater range of students being exposed to that more-challenging curriculum. I think many schools and teachers don't realize that if you have a strong curriculum and if you teach that effectively, the children are going to do well on the test. Unfortunately, it's often interpreted as you teach what's being tested and no more than that.
Many see a benefit of No Child Left Behind in holding schools accountable and motivating necessary change. In what ways do you think it has had a positive effect in that direction?
I certainly think that the disaggregated reporting required by the legislation - looking at achievement patterns based on gender, race, language groups, etc. - is one of its benefits. It has caused school districts and schools to look at their policies that may be creating some inequities, and resulting changes have produced achievement gains and a reduction in achievement gaps between groups in many schools. Another benefit is the idea of annual testing in all grades 3 through 8. It gives schools information they can use to look at curriculum, instruction and teaching quality grade level by grade level. Testing is kind of a double-edged sword - yes, there is more testing time, but if the tests are good, you're getting information that can help you improve.
As Congress considers a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, is there any consensus on what changes need to be considered?
There are at least three areas in which just about everybody would agree there needs to be more work. One involves the provision for giving families the choice to send their children elsewhere if their school is determined to be failing (not making AYP three years in a row). For many kids and families, that isn't a real option for a variety of reasons. Families need real options, and legislators need to think about what support should go to failing schools to not have them fail. Another area is teacher quality, on which there's a lot of language in the original legislation, but which is really an unfunded mandate at this point. Much more federal money needs to go into this. Improving teacher quality can't only be the responsibility of states and localities. A third area is in the definition of AYP and how it is assessed. The initial idea of 100 percent of students meeting state standards by 2013 was certainly a noble goal, but an unrealistic one. I think we're likely to see a tempering of the definition of AYP and consideration of a value-added metric that gives schools credit for how much progress they've made, not just whether they've reached an absolute standard.