The Deep Irony of No Child Left Behind: Lisa Hirsch Interviews Linda Darling-Hammond

In January 2007, longtime CES educator Lisa Hirsch interviewed Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, where she launched the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute and the School Redesign Network. Darling-Hammond talked with Hirsch immediately after returning from testifying to a congressional committee about No Child Left Behind’s upcoming reauthorization, and suggested that Essential school educators do what they can in their communities to educate legislators and policymakers to create a new assessment climate that supports meaningful, personalized, and challenging teaching and learning.

Lisa Hirsch: At Fall Forum last year, you spoke about how, as we head into No Child Left Behind’s reauthorization, we need to find ways to capitalize on the tiny “cracks” in specific states where there’s doubt about high stakes testing—that is, on the promise represented by what’s emerging in specific states that are creating assessment systems using multiple and locally based measures, not just high stakes testing. Can we look at those states as models for a system that more fully includes performance-based assessments?

Linda Darling-Hammond: In different degrees, these are states where exhibitions, portfolios and performance tasks are the bulk of assessment systems for high school curriculum and graduation. Nebraska is perhaps the best example now, and there are others. You can look to Vermont for its use of portfolios and Rhode Island for senior projects. And in Rhode Island, for example, standardized state assessments cannot count for more than ten percent of the graduation requirements. So testing factors in, but it doesn’t dominate. And some states are going much further in introducing performance-based assessment, such as Connecticut and Oregon. So there are a number of states that are trying to have multiple measures systems with performance-based elements.

Hirsch: So with this in mind, what are some of your suggestions? I think that leveraging exhibitions at CES schools helps make a difference as we move toward reauthorization. In my situation, we’re trying political outreach—our state senator has come to see our exhibitions, and we’re working on getting more politicians involved. What other kinds of things do you think schools and teachers could be doing to help people to see the light?

Darling-Hammond: First of all, you’re educating your local political representatives about what good education looks like, what types of assessments are supportive of good education, and what the effects are of more thoughtful assessment. That’s really important because when the policy makers make these policies, they don’t know what’s inside the black box of testing. They really need images of what’s possible and what’s desirable. I think that’s extremely important. Teachers need to get involved in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. They should form coalitions through professional associations, organizations like the Coalition, and other organizations likely to have an influence on legislative proposals. As individuals, teachers can write to congressional representatives, write letters to the editor, put together position papers and documents and get those circulated.

What legislators need to know is what you’re asking them to do. They may agree with you that this is important, but then you need to have done the work to show them other possibilities. You need to ask for explicit encouragement for performance assessment and for local assessment to count in the determination of individual students’ progress and the school’s progress. We have to be very clear when we ask for changes and be able to say, “This is the implication for the law.”

Hirsch: What are your biggest concerns thinking about NCLB’s reauthorization? And is the biggest concern high stakes standardized testing?

Darling-Hammond: Well, I actually want to list some things that are currently working. One of those, although it needs some tweaking, is the highly qualified teacher provision, which is about getting more high quality teachers in schools. There is a need to adjust the standards for interdisciplinary teachers and others so that they can be declared highly qualified in the fields that they teach. But certainly, the general idea that we ought to hire qualified teachers for all kids is a good one, as is the fact that we ought to look at the performance of kids from different income groups.

The Achilles’ heel in the law is that everything involved with that has to be comparable, and this drives us back toward the traditional multiple choice, norm-referenced standardized tests that aren’t supposed to be used for high stakes and punitive purposes. That is the biggest problem.

Hirsch: I have also seen sensible, veteran teachers do crazy things, such as put a grade on a diagnostic test. People are so freaked out and feeling totally undermined.

Darling-Hammond: You really do start to develop an Alice in Wonderland world in which the practices become sort of surreal because you’re being asked to respond to a nonsensical sort of intention. And that’s the biggest problem. Nobody really meant for that to happen in the federal Congress, the state plans and so on, but what you have is a lack of understanding of how curriculum, assessment, school improvement, and measurement operate. That went into the law, that has gone into the regulation, and that has gone into the state plans that have been trickling down to the school and classroom level in ways that end up creating these kinds of bizarre circumstances and negative consequences. That is the deep irony of a law entitled No Child Left Behind.

Hirsch: That’s a great way to put it: the deep irony of No Child Left Behind. I am pretty sure that the people who wrote NCLB did not intend for teachers to act insensibly, but the pressure is so great, and teachers do not know what to do in response. We grade things that should not be graded, we are intent on measuring and assessing more and more, and we do not take time to reflect, which is a huge part of learning. If the stakes weren’t so high, we wouldn’t have such ironic implications that are happening all over the place.

Darling-Hammond: I think that the trick is to change not just the stakes but also the nature of the assessments. Ideally, we should have really thoughtful assessments at the state and local levels that support the curriculum and that provide continuous information. Teachers could get smarter and smarter about how to interpret that, and it would inform instruction.

And ideally, the stakes for this would not be fashioned in such a way that there would be incentive to narrow curriculum, to push kids out of school if they are “keeping the school’s average down,” which is happening in a lot of places, or to traumatize kids. Some states have fashioned systems that they’re fighting to keep in the face of federal pressure to undo measures that are thoughtful about what kids ought to learn, how we can assess that, how the assessments can be used to help teachers understand the standards and the learning process better, and how to improve instruction in ways that are not punitive to the kids or the school. And I think that’s what most of the people that voted for NCLB would like to see happen. To the extent that people have been able to make sense out of a law that’s invoked a great deal of nonsensical responses, it probably does have some salutary effects of calling attention to certain aspects of the learning process. But you can have very different effects of the law for kids in some schools where the responses are going to be more reductionistic and where they don’t have the capacity to improve the quality of instruction. There’s a tremendous amount of complexity—what one kid or one teacher experiences in one school in one state is not necessarily what a different kid or teacher will experience in another state.

Hirsch: So what more can we do to move the reauthorization more towards the middle, more toward the performance-based? What can we do to make sure that the curriculum is not compromised and how could it actually be made more robust because of federal mandates?

Darling-Hammond: There are people at various levels of government who are interested in this problem. They’re hearing this from their constituents, and they’re trying to figure out how to improve the law, so I think it’s really important for educators individually and collectively, through every organization they belong to, to tell legislators about what they want to see happening because there’s a possibility that it will be heard at this moment.

Related Resources:

Linda Darling-Hammond is one of the conveners of the Forum for Education and Democracy. Visit the Forum online to read more from Darling-Hammond and others about flaws in the current iteration of NCLB legislation and ideas for change. Forum for Education and Democracy.

Multiple Measures Approaches to High School Graduation
Authors: Linda Darling-Hammond, Elle Rustique-Forrester, Raymond Pecheone and Alethea Andree.

This 2005 report from the Stanford School Redesign Network provides an in-depth examination of the assessment systems in 27 states that use multiple measures approaches. It also discusses testing for English language learners and students with disabilities, and makes recommendations about test uses and effects. View it online at