Rewarding Mediocrity: No Child Left Behind Eliminates a Challenging Curriculum

A typical situation in school today, a curriculum that revolves constantly around testing

A typical situation in school today, a curriculum that revolves constantly around testing (photo: americansocietytoday.blogspot.com)

In remarks to the graduates of Bergen Community College earlier this month, one of the guest speakers stated, “In this age of No Child Left Behind, you strove to stand out and challenge yourselves, and that is truly exceptional.”

That sentence resonated with me, as the fact was undeniable, challenge has been extinguished in today’s curriculum.

While no doubt created with good intention, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has eliminated both drive and initiative from the classroom. In a competitive society where success often hinges on the ability to prove oneself, we are training tomorrow’s workers to do just enough to get by.

Currently, No Child Left Behind inadvertently forces schools to lower the bar by allowing states to set standards that almost all students can pass in order to maintain federal funding. As a country, especially one with the greatest university system in the world, the bar needs to be raised higher.

I saw the effects of NCLB when I was at high school in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. According to the state’s school performance report, 97% were deemed proficient in language arts and 91% met the same standard in math.

In 2005, Ridgefield Park was one of 22 schools in the state to be awarded a “Governor’s School of Excellence Award.” When announcing the winners, acting education commissioner Lucille E. Davy stated, “These schools are excellent examples of how we can prepare our students for a 21st century workplace.”

On the surface, the scores and awards would indicate that the school is ensuring that students are qualified for a successful college career post graduation. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The school performance report also lists statistics that measure college and career readiness, showing that for Ridgefield Park, just 20% of the target was met. This number measures “the degree to which students are demonstrating behaviors that are indicative of future attendance and/or success in college and careers,” and is demonstrated by SAT scores and AP course participation.

Currently, only 24% of students in the district score above a 1550 on the SAT and just 10% take an AP course, below the states already lamentable targets of 40% and 35%.

During my time in Ridgefield Park the focus was primarily on both the Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment (GEPA) and High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). Only after the conclusion of these examinations at the beginning of senior year did college preparation become a priority. By this time it was too late for many students who had spent the better part of the previous three years preparing for a test that they were told would determine their high school success.

This lack of preparation was shown when, out of the 93 graduates of the class of 2011 who went on to attend community college, only three were able to graduate within two years.

The above results are likely a result of the focus that No Child Left Behind puts on school districts. If released from the strict guidelines school boards place upon them, teachers would be free to guide students through a curriculum that combines a diverse education with proper preparation.

In addition, if states want a benchmark test to set a minimum score upon, a replacement could be found with the SAT, in which case the results will have applicable meaning.

Instead of mandatory courses built around standardized testing, students can instead take an elective course for SAT prep or college financial planning, both of which would be of better long-term use. This would also help lower-income students, a key target of NCLB, who do not have the money to hire expensive tutors.

By having a test that is meaningful be the measurement in which school success is determined, parents can be assured that their children are receiving an education that will cultivate success post-graduation.

After over a decade of lackluster results, the time has come for a new standard. Schools need to reward excellence, not conformity to a set of figures.