Conspicuously missing from the debate over the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is a discussion of how it has hurt many of our most capable children. By forcing schools to focus their time and funding almost entirely on bringing low-achieving students up to proficiency, NCLB sacrifices the education of the gifted students who will become our future biomedical researchers, computer engineers and other scientific leaders.
The drafters of this legislation didn’t have to be rocket scientists to foresee that it would harm high-performing students. The act’s laudable goal was to bring every child up to “proficiency” in language arts and math, as measured by standardized tests, by 2014. But to reach this goal, the act imposes increasingly draconian penalties on schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” toward bringing low-scoring students up to proficiency. While administrators and teachers can lose their jobs for failing to improve the test scores of low-performing students, they face no penalties for failing to meet the needs of high-scoring students.
Given the act’s incentives, teachers must contend with constant pressure to focus their attention simply on bringing all students to proficiency on grade-level standards. My district’s elementary school report card vividly illustrates the overriding interest in mere proficiency. The highest “grade” a child can receive indicates only that he or she “meets/exceeds the standard.” The unmistakable message to teachers—and to students—is that it makes no difference whether a child barely meets the proficiency standard or far exceeds it.
Not surprisingly, with the entire curriculum geared to ensuring that every last child reaches grade-level proficiency, there is precious little attention paid to the many children who master the standards early in the year and are ready to move on to more challenging work. What are these children supposed to do while their teachers struggle to help the lowest-performing students? Rather than acknowledging the need to provide a more advanced curriculum for high-ability children, some schools mask the problem by dishonestly grading students as below proficiency until the final report card, regardless of their actual performance.