Here is a warning: this post is about the No Child Left Behind act.  If you do not care about NCLB, then skip this post and come back tomorrow. However, if you are a parent or a student or a taxpayer, you ought to know about it.

Here is the official website. If you want to click your way through a great deal of advertising and doubletalk, feel free. If you are patient enough to get any real information from it, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Here is the text of the law. It is just about what you would expect the text of a law to be. There are lots of details about funding. But I don’t want you to take my word for things. You can go and see that I am telling you the truth.

I have had new insight on NCLB. The Wall Street Journal had a little editorial on the subject, right next to a discussion of why college costs keep rising. The juxtaposition of the two made clear to me something that hasn’t ever made any sense to me before.

Here’s the thing: according to the WSJ, the testing required by NCLB allows us to see how a school is doing, just as the profit reports of a business allow us to see how a business is doing. Then the patrons — the students and their parents — have the option to take their business elsewhere if the school isn’t doing well. If you can take business as a metaphor for education, this will make sense to you. You will figure that the vast majority of teachers are opposed to NCLB because, as the WSJ sees it, they are opposed to accountability. They want to be able to screw up without getting caught. NCLB brings their failures to light.

This is not the case. For one, thing, the tests are not designed to do that, and will not do it just because the government wants them to. To understand this, you have to know the difference between criterion-referenced and norm-referenced tests. This sounds dull, but it is in fact important.

A criterion-referenced test is like a spelling test. There are ten words, the teacher teaches them, the students study, and if all is well, then everyone gets 100%. This shows that the kids learned the words and the spelling lesson was successful.

A norm-referenced test is different. For this kind of test, you pick 100 words, 33 of which almost everyone can spell, 33 of which are hard to spell, and the remainder of which are somewhere in the middle. You give this test to groups of students to make sure that it produces a bell-shaped curve — that about half the kids get 50% or above and half get 50% or below, with most of them clustered around 50% and just a few at the very top or bottom score. You tweak the test until you get the bell-shaped curve pretty consistently, and then you give it to people without training them first. What this will do for you is allow you to sort people who take the test into good spellers, average spellers, and bad spellers. It is very good if you want to pick out some copy editors — you want good spellers. It is worthless for telling you anything about spelling lessons. It is kind of like a Hogwarts sorting hat, on a rather different scale.

Now, this kind of test will also tell you some things about populations. For example, if you give that norm-referenced spelling test internationally and everyone gets a bell-shaped curve except Singapore, where the average is 80%, then that may say something about spelling lessons in Singapore. It does not, however, tell you anything about how your kid’s teacher did on last week’s spelling lesson. That is not what it is for.

Which kind of test is being used to judge schools? Norm-referenced tests.

You may have to mull this over a little, because it makes no sense.

What’s more, when you test the kids each year, you are testing a different group of children. Yep. As you will see, lots of things ride on how a school’s test scores change from year to year. But we are not giving the kids a test at the beginning of the year and then giving the same test to those kids at the end of the year. If we did that, and used criterion-referenced tests, there might be some sense to it. But we are giving a norm-referenced test to this year’s fourth-graders one year and then comparing that average score with the average score of the next year’s fourth-graders the following year on in many cases a completely different norm-referenced test.

I hope you have not forgotten that norm-referenced tests are supposed to make a bell-shaped curve. Many people believe that the government or God makes these tests, but really they are written by and sold by testing companies. If their test quits producing a bell-shaped curve, they fix it.

And I hope you have not forgotten that the kids take a new test each year, for the grade they are in that year.

So when the 500 kids at one school in 2005 get an average 3 points higher than the 450 kids at the same school in 2004, it tells you nothing. Absolutely nothing, except that a whole lot of money was wasted in testing, preparing for the test, and sending out the “report card” to the parents. Nor is that 3-point change statistically signifiicant. Nor is it what the consequences of the law are based on. But the law does require the school to send it to you. In this way, all parents who have ever taken a decent science or statistics course can know first-hand that the school system is filled with people who never have taken any such course.

Now that we have the peculiarity of the testing situation clear in our minds, let us look at the major provisions of the law. First, states must define “a high level” of achievement, called “proficient,” which is to be a measurable level of ability in math and language arts. This must be the same level for all students at all schools in the state. Don’t miss this —  This means that special ed teachers are no longer allowed to teach their high school students how to recognize the icons on public restrooms or balance a checkbook or choose appropriate clothing for the weather. They must follow the same curriculum as the other teachers. They may use other materials. Have you ever looked for high school science materials suitable for students who are not able to read? I sell a lot of color books for this purpose.

The states must have a 12-year timetable which shows how they will get all students to this point of proficiency. This does not mean that they have K-12 to get a student to a particular level of proficiency. It means that all the entering kindergartners in year 12 will meet the goals set for kindergartners, regardless of ability or background.

You can go read this for yourself if you have trouble believing it. The idea is to establish one “high” level of achievement for everyone and make sure that they meet it.

The premise here is that there should not be high-achieving schools where the affluent children who are lucky enough to live in that school district get superior educations, and there should not be unfortunate schools where the quality of education is poor. This is a nice thought. Let’s leave aside the matter of the testing for the moment — it will not help reach this target, but educational equality is a laudable goal. However, the plan is not  to give extra support to schools that need it, but to set one standard for an entire state’s students.

If you are not involved in education, you may find it easier to imagine this in a business framework. You have a chain of restaurants, and all of them must make the same amount of money, regardless of location, time of year, menu, size of the town… Or go with sports. All the people in the town — remember, you can’t choose a team, you have to include everyone — must do the long jump and reach exactly the same point. Including the old ones, and the paraplegics. Camp counselors, all the people on your bus must sing the same song equally well, regardless of age, natural talent, or level of training. This includes the deaf ones.

It is okay for someone to do a bit better than the goal, but you have to specify in advance a “high” level of achievement for everyone to aim for. So you will perhaps — since there are “sanctions” and “bonuses” involved — choose a fairly low level of achievement. The lowest that you can conceivably get away with calling “high.” You cannot specify that everyone will reach the three foot mark on the high jump, or that each restaurant will take in $400 a night. But you obviously cannot say that everyone in your town will do a 10′ standing long jump, either, not and plan to succeed. What’s more, an “achievement gap” will also be penalized. So if you set a goal that is reasonable for your upstate rural restaurant location, and your Manhattan branch beats it by a mile, you will be in trouble.

Back to the schools. Their success is measured by test scores — those same tests that were not designed for the purpose. And they must improve each year until everyone reaches that high standard of achievement the state defined. They do not have the same students, remember, but they must still improve each year. A restaurant might increase its take each year as it becomes well-known and expands, but a teacher has a new crop of students each year. Some years there are a number of students with limited English, or a couple of autistic students, and some years there may be a higher number of students with supportive families. The teacher has no control over this. He or she cannot reasonably be expected to have higher scores each year than the previous year. And yet the teacher’s salary and class assignments may rely on the test scores.

What’s more, there is a specific formula for improvement: ten percent per year.

So let’s say that you have set the goal for your community of long-jumpers at 8 feet. This year, 80 people never got to that 8 foot mark. Well, next year, when you will start all over with a completely new group of novices, you must have only 72 who do not make it.

Does this sound ludicrous? It is. In the schools, it is just as ludicrous, but more complicated.

If your school does not make adequate progress under the law, then all the students are allowed to leave and go to other schools. If you don’t improve with the ones who stay, then you can be shut down and have all the workers at your school fired, or you can be taken over by a private company. Which students, by the way, will stay at the under-performing school? Those whose families have no way to get them to a different school, or do not care. So your sample size will be smaller, and they may be less well-supported at home, but you will still be expected to meet those numbers.

What are the consequences? The government says that NCLB “is working,” as evidenced by rising test scores. We already know that the test scores do not tell us much, and that the rising is not to a statistically significant level. But what does it mean that the scores are rising?

Well, let’s go back to one of those simpler examples. You are the camp counselor, and your bus must reach the point at which everyone sings at the same level. The same “high” level. What will you do?

You may identify the ones who can already sing well, and ignore them for the rest of the year until the test comes around. Then you might choose a song that seems like a realistic one for the group you have left to work with, and have them practice that constantly until test time, in hopes that they will have gotten it. You might skimp on first aid training and canoeing time in order to spend more time on singing that one song. You might try to figure out ways to cheat — maybe some choreography will persuade the testers that your group is better than it is, or perhaps doing a song in a foreign language will impress them.

Are you thinking that a camp counselor should not be judged solely by how well the campers sing on the bus? The schools feel the same way. Schools provide a safe place for children, introduce them to ideas and languages and points of view not found in their homes, help them develop skills for working with others, teach arts and sciences and history — should they be judged entirely by kids’ scores on math and reading tests?

But you are pretending you are a camp counselor. If you are a highly honorable person with great dedication to to your work, you might not do those things. You might go ahead with your goals regardless of the consequences.

But most schools are ignoring the gifted students (remember, if they improve, there will be a bigger “achievement gap”), cutting back on actual education and heaping on the test practice, fudging the achievement standards, trying out new tests every year in hopes of finding one they can get better scores on —

In short, NCLB’s focus on test scores is harming education.

Things were not wonderful in public education before. It was not a level playing field. There was waste of resources and there were problems. But NCLB has made things significantly worse. It has put teachers into a surreal situation in which they cannot win, certainly not with self-respect. It has made much of school a waste of time for students. This year, my kids will spend nine full days (5% of the school year) taking standardized tests. Many will spend more time than that. In the grades where NCLB has kicked in fully, they will spend at least half their class time practicing for the tests.The tests do not benefit the kids in any way. They have consequences for the teachers and the administration, not for the students. They mean nothing to the students. But the kindergartners will study the word “rhombus” instead of learning to tie their shoes, the first graders will do bubble tests instead of reading books, and most elementary schools will do virtually no science, history, or art until after the tests are given in April.

Your tax dollars at work.