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Study: Test Prep Grows, Curriculum Shrinks In Low-Income Schools

By Alain Jehlen

Thursday, November 19, 2009 -- No Child Left Behind is changing classroom practice, often for the worse. And the most change is happening where there are high percentages of low-income and minority students.

That’s what the Government Accountability Office reports in a new study out this week.

And the Senator who asked for the study, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, is not happy about it. “No Child Left Behind Law’s one-size-fits-all approach and heavy focus on high-stakes testing is causing problems,” said Feingold. “The study found that problematic teaching practices like teaching to the test and spending more time on test preparation are happening more frequently in high-poverty and high-minority schools.”

Feingold called on his colleagues in Congress to support the development of higher quality assessment and ensure that “students and schools are measured by more than test scores.”

The critical question of what NCLB is doing to classroom teaching has gotten relatively little scholarly attention. Most research has focused instead on test scores, and generally has found higher scores on high-stakes tests, but not much impact on other standardized tests that cover the same subjects.

The GAO report, however, asks what is happening to instruction. The GAO researchers relied on surveys of teachers and principals conducted by the Rand Corporation, along with interviews with education researchers and a review of other studies.

The study found schools are using many strategies to try to meet the test score requirements of No Child Left Behind, some of which are likely to contribute to real learning, and some of which are not.

For example, many principals report a longer school day and efforts to involve parents.

But they also report teaching to the test, not just the content but the particular question formats and test-taking strategies—skills and knowledge that have no use in later life.

“While responsible testing is an important part of measuring achievement and holding schools accountable, it should not come at the expense of providing students a well-rounded education that prepares them for success later in life,” Sen. Feingold commented. 

The GAO researchers also found that the schools making the most changes in an effort to boost test scores are those with high percentages of low income and minority students.

NEA has gathered reports from hundreds of teachers about the impact of No Child Left Behind and made them available online.

Some of these reports are posted on NEA discussion boards open to the public.

One teacher wrote, “The mandated methods and materials now used to teach state standards have turned what used to be … exciting classes … [into] routine exercises that rarely tap into higher level critical thinking skills.”

A more systematic collection of classroom reports, state by state, is on the NEA website here.


Join the discussion on the affects of NCLB

State-by-state reports on NCLB's impact