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Commentary: Keep tests, add resource equity in new ed law

Guest contributor | July 1, 2015

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student computer testsBy Chris Hofmann

As a fourth grade teacher in East Los Angeles, I know firsthand that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and its Title I provisions aren’t just extra federal dollars. They are those extra “Weird School” books in my classroom library that got Ricky* excited to read. They are the laptops and mathematical programs that made borrowing make sense for Elizabeth*. They are the professional development opportunities that have shaped my practice as a teacher. 

And since the passage in 2002 of ESEA’s most recent reauthorization, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), they are the state tests and the accountability provisions that we use to evaluate and reflect upon Ricky’s, Elizabeth’s and all of my students’ academic success.

Now, 13 years after NCLB’S enactment and eight years after it was to be reauthorized, the Senate is finally debating an updated version of the law. This new version, called Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), offers us a singular opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of the last 13 years and make changes that will impact the next generation of students in Los Angeles.

As a teacher in a Los Angeles school where 96 percent of the students are Latino and 90 percent qualify for free and reduced meals, I know that there is one thing we need to fight to keep, and there is one thing we need to address if this law will live up to ESEA’s legacy as a seminal civil rights law.

First, we must fight to keep the annual tests. While there is still room for these tests to improve, they provide valuable information for schools, educators and ultimately students. This was definitely the case for Alex*, a bright-eyed 4th grader who started the year significantly behind his peers in reading. By the end of the year, Alex had made over two years’ worth of progress and caught up to his classmates.

Alex’s growth was no accident. Even before he and his classmates lined up for the first day of school, I knew that he needed help based on his standardized test results from previous years. When Alex walked into my classroom, I already had a plan in place to help him improve his reading skills. If we were to lose annual assessments, educators like me would lose a critical source of data to help us identify the needs of students like Alex and support them to reach their full potential.

Yearly assessments also provide an important tool with which to monitor student progress and adjust our educational programs accordingly. Last year, my grade-level team observed a recurring trend in our data: our students demonstrated significantly better comprehension on fiction than on nonfiction. Because we noticed this trend in our standardized test results, we were able to make changes to our curriculum, adding another nonfiction unit and incorporating more nonfiction reading throughout the year.

That said, if we ever want to achieve replicable, excellent outcomes for all students, we must address something that ESEA doesn’t adequately cover: the massive disparities in resources between public schools in Los Angeles’s low-income and affluent communities.

Educational resources, such as school libraries, computers, small classes, and school counselors, all have a vital impact on student achievement. We will not fully succeed unless we make sure that every student in Los Angeles has what he or she needs to learn.

Every day I work with dedicated teachers who go above and beyond what is expected. I work with families who seek out every opportunity to help their children thrive. But this collective effort is not always enough.

We need to make sure that schools have equitable access to resources like the library books that motivated Ricky to read and the computers and small class size that allowed Elizabeth to learn math at her own pace. The new law must require California to track these critical factors of school quality and compel the state to address the vast inequities that exist. If we want truly excellent outcomes for all students in our city, we must fight for resource equity.

NCLB has been shaping the education of Los Angeles students for 13 years. We cannot let this opportunity pass. Let’s honor the legacy of ESEA by fighting to keep annual tests and addressing the massive disparities in resources in our schools and communities.

(*Names have been changed to protect the students’ privacy.)

Chris Hoffmann is a fourth grade teacher at a non-unionized public charter school authorized by LAUSD and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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