In the Public Interest

The Public Interest Directorate has, on many occasions, taken action in response to the reauthorization of federal legislation that has an impact on certain population groups or constituencies represented within the directorate.

For example, we have educated or advocated for congressional actions regarding the reauthorization of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs, as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Most recently our attention has been focused on the latter law, first passed by Congress in 1965 as a part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and reauthorized in 2001 by the Bush Administration as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

Particularly pressing to the directorate is Title 1 of the law, which focuses on improving the academic performance of the disadvantaged by ensuring that all children have a fair and equal opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.

The mechanics

Title I of NCLB is focused on children who have been marginalized by society and have not benefited from the educational system, in spite of the billions of dollars made available to the states through ESEA. NCLB is different from its predecessors in that it aims to create accountability within state and local school systems. Failure to educate students who meet state standards in reading and math would have consequences not just for students, but for administrators, teachers, and ultimately, for schools.

For example, in the 2005-6 school year, states are required to begin statewide assessments of progress made in reading and math for students in grades three to eight. And in 2007-08, states must assess progress in science. Each year schools must show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and over the next 12 years, they must demonstrate that all students are proficient in science, reading and math.

In addition to student performance, NCLB requires qualified teachers and teachers' aides to be available in classrooms. The law defines qualified teaching staff as persons who are competent and certified in their assigned area(s) of instruction. Schools must also inform parents of the outcomes of the educational process, particularly the assessments and any sanctions levied for not meeting requirements.

Some concerns

Accountability is good. However, there is a concern that accountability will come to rest almost exclusively on the assessment outcomes. Assessment in most states will mean standardized tests. If tests form the sole basis of the assessment, a couple of events are predictable.

First, as has happened historically, poor children, children of color, children of recent immigrants, etc., are not likely to perform well on the tests. Where a school has a preponderance of such students, NCLB sanctions are likely to be triggered, placing educators and administrators at significant career and job risk. So there is no misunderstanding, the issue here is not one of intelligence, but rather that schools in many poor communities are simply collection points for the social conditions of the surrounding neighborhoods. So these children, in addition to an accountable education system as required by Title I, also need a variety of family, health and safety supports, which are often in short supply

Second, there is a predictable systemic response to being held accountable, test-wise in such a high-stakes situation. It is quite likely that teaching and teacher training will focus on tests and test-taking. If it's not tested for, it is not likely to be taught. Rather than providing an education experience that is broad and is sampled by the tests, there will be concern that students just pass the tests. In a scenario where all children, including those with disabilities, must show proficiency, the system will help them test proficiently, but will limit them educationally.

Accountability based on outcomes provided solely by standardized tests is misguided. Tests haves a role--an important one--in assessment. But the stakes are too high to rely on them exclusively. Given a system that requires a qualified teaching staff, it is important that teachers be factored into the student assessment equation on a basis at least equal to that of tests.

There are many other aspects of NCLB, too numerous to note in this column, that are important for education of Title I children. But psychologists, particularly school psychologists, have an important role to play in helping to address the assessment, counseling and mental health issues involved.