If we truly mean no child left behind, let’s also assess what kids DO KNOW and CAN DO.

The bad news about U.S students’ academic shortcomings is everywhere.  The fall-out from the past five years of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), our nation’s standards-based mandate for educational reform, suggests the educational system in the U.S. is in shambles.  Headlines such as “Slipping Schools:  poor merit exam results are main reasons 4-10 high schools fail to meet federal goals” (Detroit Free Press, December 1, 2007) appear in newspapers from Maine to California.  While many stakeholders reel in the shockwaves, too few call the assessments into question.   Although the tests may vary from one state to the next, their similarity is that they are generally norm-referenced tests designed to have 50% of their takers fall below the mean (www.lessonsfortomorrow.com).  That’s certainly food for thought regarding Congress’ present dilemma regarding renewal of the act.  (Perhaps these politicians should take one of these tests?)  Further, these tests are one-size-fits-all summative assessments:  they do not measure creativity, information literacy, social skills; they are not honoring different learning styles or different test-taking speeds. While the tests may inform us about some of our academic instructional challenges, they still say little about what many of our young people DO KNOW and CAN DO.  Unfortunately, creativity (historically a hallmark of our nation’s success) is an unfortunate casualty.

Let’s take a close look at two actual class of ’06 graduates, Jessica and Jason, both of whom “failed” to meet basic requirements on the state tests.  Jessica was proud of her knowledge of art and her abilities with new media.  Long before chat-rooms were part of the pop cultural norm, Jessica “conversed” with other young people around the world who shared her interest in the Japanese art form, Anime.  Although, she performed poorly on objective tests, Jessica‘s profound creativity was evident in her art, writing, and digital editing projects.   Her stories, some of which she brought to life in animation, were virtually professional.   Fortunately, Jessica is now immersed in a two-year communication arts program further developing her 21st century expertise and marketability.  It’s hard to accept that this young person was labeled a “failure” and part of the statistic of a “failing school.”   Jason is similar.  Jason didn’t do well on objective tests and struggled in all of his academic subjects.  He was, however, a gifted musician, songwriter, poet and story teller.  Jason longed for the opportunity to perfect his skills in digital editing and excelled so in that class it began to drive his future plans.  In his senior year this visual learner began to develop all his writing assignments with a digital storyboard which had the wonderful result of turning his former low grades into “A s.”  Jason is now at a community college in a media studies program.  Again, a statistical ‘failure’ has a promising future in digital art.

Jessica and Jason provide compelling evidence that NCLB-driven reform and  state test results overshadow—even hide!-- some important truths about our schools and the students within them.   Fortunately, these two creative young people, equipped with many of the 21st century skills needed in our global society, were immune to the impacts of being a negative statistic. But, not all students can override negative assessment.  Sometimes the fallout of being labeled failure is that fact follows. So when the test results say, “you failed,”  some of our youngsters believe it,  give up and often drop out.  Real children left behind. 

In the misguided zeal to have no child left behind in the 21st century we are unwittingly leaving many behind.  Lucky ones like Jessica and Jason succeed in spite of their designations as “failures.”   But if we are to truly engage in meaningful educational reform we must embrace the students as multi-faceted learners—even customers.  We must modify the assessment design to go beyond the mere summative assessment of content and find ways to assess (and value statistically) the skills that children can perform. Creativity cannot be ignored.  Technical skills cannot be ignored.  Presentations should be part of the assessment puzzle:  exhibitions; video presentations; e-portfolios; speaking projects.  Our assessments should resemble those used in universities and the business world.  In its present form NCLB legislation threatens to drive education backward.  It overemphasizes test scores on a fixed body of content that in reality is subject to challenge. (How many planets are there?).  In the ocean of information presently at the students’ fingertips, we must teach and assess their skill in navigating all resources of knowledge. How to find, analyze, evaluate and use knowledge may ultimately prove to be of greatest importance.   We must challenge the NCLB drivers to imbue new thinking and new assessments to the No Child left Behind Act.  Otherwise we’ll be stuck in reverse…going back to a 50 year-old educational model suited to the mid 20th century, rather than our new one.

There are many students in the U.S. that fit the profiles of Jessica and Jason.  These bright, creative, hi-tech, media literate, responsible young citizens of the 21st century statistically are listed as “failures” by the misleading and incomplete assessments emanating from the NCLB Act.  If we want to make our schools preparatory grounds for the development of the creative, socially adept, technically proficient, critical thinkers in this new century, we need to leave the present version of NCLB behind.