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This is part 4 of a series that tells a story intended to help people understand the cultural context of changes happening in education.

Then came No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  With NCLB, states had to change their standardized tests from testing aptitude for learning and ranking from most to least apt to instead measuring the degree to which students had mastered the objectives for the core subjects at their grade level.  Schools could not have different standards or objectives for different demographic groups.

We Need Goals and Objectives With Data and Research!

Suddenly, federal education grants had to have goals written in terms of academic proficiency as measured by these standardized tests or other measurable behavior data (like attendance or suspensions).  The services provided had to be linked to desired outcomes by some research that had shown they were linked.

We Needed to Use Data

The evaluation reports my team and I were to write suddenly had to include pre-academic data and compare it to post-academic data.  Schools could no longer identify students for grant-funded programs by using the lunch status list. The services had to be research-based and linked to the desired outcome.  If there were not research studies linking the giving of iPads and basketballs to get kids to pass algebra, then you couldn’t have this be your service to promote this goal.  You had to do something like tutor them in algebra now.

Review the Research

We started learning a lot more about the curriculum and resources being used by these programs because we had to review how the research linked the services or the curriculum to the desired outcome.  We’d ask program staff who the resources were for, in terms of the academic goals of programs.  For example, is it for struggling readers?  For average readers to enrich them?  More often than not, program staff could not answer us.  They would tell us the sales material said it was for low-income kids.  We’d search What Works Clearinghouse, and almost always find something like: “150 research studies had been conducted on the curriculum.  Two of the studies were valid, and they both showed no effect.”

People Were Confused

A lot of people got confused by the changes that were happening.  Because many educators work on federal grants in addition to their full-time jobs, they didn’t have the big picture of how all these changes fit together.  And, both the new and the old paradigm co-existed as the changes started to happen.  A school might have one program that still required “at-risk” students be referred and another that was to be implemented under the new paradigm of using reading scores as baseline data and serving only students who were below grade level.  Poor kids might be referred to as “academically at risk” for one program, even if they were straight A students.  In another grant funded program in the same school, they may not qualify for services because they are not “academically at risk” according to their reading score.

We were evaluating 21st Century Community Learning Center grants in many counties in North Carolina when this transition began.  Originally, these grants were to serve “at-risk” kids.  Then suddenly they switched to requiring that the kids were below grade level on math or reading standardized tests.  These were multi-year grants, and the kids were already in them.  In one district we were working with, when the schools told the parents that only students who read below grade level could now be served in these high quality after-school programs, parents told their kids to purposefully fail the End-of-Grade tests so they could stay in the program.  Confusion abounded.