Commentary: Building a better robot, or how NCLB is failing our students

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Congressman Rick Larsen
Congressman Rick Larsen

Students at Mountlake Terrace High School know how to innovate. The robots they build, wings they design and medical research they conduct are clear markers of successful students and teachers. When I visited the high school last spring, students not only schooled me in robotics and aerodynamics, they presented their ideas to me clearly and effectively.

The projects these students engage in during classes ranging from advanced math to foundational engineering to computer programming show no signs of failure. Many students also take their science and technology knowledge beyond the classroom by participating in activities outside of the regular school day, like clubs focused on rocketry and robotics.

Yet in the Edmonds School District and other districts all across the state, schools recently had to send letters to parents indicating the schools are failing. The letters are required under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law because the U.S. Department of Education revoked Washington state’s waiver from the law, meaning schools and student test scores now must be evaluated under those flawed standards.

But these letters in no way reflect a negative change in the quality of education in Washington state. The requirement to send letters describing schools as ‘failing’ only demonstrates that NCLB’s standards are terribly constructed. These flawed education standards are completely out of touch with Washington state’s schools. It is long past time for them to be scrapped and replaced.

Under NCLB, passed in 2001, schools are required to achieve a 100 percent passage rate on all standardized tests by this year. If even one student fails one test, a school counts as failing. This rigid and unreasonable standard takes an all-or-nothing approach that fails to recognize the critical importance of innovation in classrooms like those at Mountlake Terrace High School. Congress needs to change this by updating and reauthorizing NCLB.

School Board of Directors President Diana White noted in her recent piece in Lynnwood Today that sanctioning Washington schools is “misguided and simply absurd.” I agree that federal education policy should reward school districts for progress rather than punishing them for not meeting rigid requirements. Accountability is critical, but NCLB does not allow any credit for individual progress that teachers make with students.

Washington state already has made important progress toward improving education for all students. Our state’s concrete goals create accountability that emphasizes progress by improving outcomes for all students, including those who might face different challenges like students with disabilities, students with learning challenges, or English language learners. Under our system, every school works to increase achievement for each group of students, even those who might struggle. Schools that are meeting or exceeding expectations adjust their goals upward to improve even more.

Waiver or not, our schools will continue to make progress towards these goals, but will be forced to do so under NCLB’s undeserved label of failure. Washington state public schools have hardworking students and a strong workforce of dedicated teachers and administrators. Congress is failing them by not reauthorizing and updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act so it works for students, teachers, and schools.

In today’s job market, workers need to have a basic understanding of science and math. These subjects are important for cutting-edge careers in aerospace and engineering, but they also are important for jobs in health care, car mechanics, construction and more.

Schools like Mountlake Terrace High School are helping students gain both the skills and the curiosity they need to succeed in their higher education and careers. These hardworking students and teachers—and those like them all across the state—should not have to bear the brand of failure because of a defective federal law.

Instead, federal law should promote innovation and progress. I am committed to working with my colleagues to find solutions to federal education policy that foster progress for our students. Washington state’s experience shows that it is imperative for Congress to act, to support efforts like our state’s that are challenging students and preparing them for college and careers.

– By Rep. Rick Larsen, WA-02

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