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Volume IV, Number 6, June, 2006

Gaming the System

Many states, thanks to the complicity of the Ed Department, have managed to game the system. They have been able to avoid the penalties and subvert the proclaimed purposes of NCLB by doing the opposite of what the law was claimed to deliver.

Millions of children have been cheated by this gaming. They have been left behind and abandoned. They have been poorly educated. They have been starved. They have been fed a Dickensian diet of educational gruel. Poor children in the USA get a narrow reading/math curriculum with no recess.

Gaming? The term refers to strategies employed by states to avoid responsibility, escape penalty and fudge results. In many states, gaming has meant that children have been cheated and NCLB has actually left many children behind, uncounted and poorly educated.

Gaming Strategy One - Use Easy Tests to Exaggerate Progress

For several years now evidence has mounted that impressive results in some states do not stand up to scrutiny when students are evaluated using a tough test like the NAEP tests (National Assessment of Education Progress). This publication noted this trend in a January, 2005 article - "The Performance Gap" which reported major gaps between state claims of proficiency and actual proficiency levels when measured by NAEP. Now according to a June 30, 2006 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "States distort school test scores, researchers say" a major study by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) has found that nearly all of the 12 states reviewed reported results significantly higher than those gathered through the federal government's own testing. Massachusetts was the one exception.

The report, "Is the No Child Left Behind Act Working? The Reliability of How States Track Achievement" is available online at

The following is quoted from the executive summary:

We detail, looking across 12 diverse states, a small improvement in the percentage of children achieving proficiency in reading, based on NAEP results between 1992 and 2005. But states estimated much higher shares of students reaching proficiency, compared with the NAEP results. We then detail how children made greater progress in math proficiency over this 13-year period. Yet again we discovered that state test results exaggerate the annual rate of improvement, compared with the federal NAEP results.

Click below to download the full report as a PDF file:

The table below drawn from the PACE data summarizes the claims of proficiency on state tests for 2005, compares those claims with proficiency levels on NAEP and highlights the gap between claim and NAEP levels.

State State Reading % Proficient NAEP Reading % Proficient % Gap State Math % Proficient NAEP Math % Proficient % Gap
Arkansas 51 30 21 50 34 16
California 47 21 26 50 28 22
Illinois 67 29 38 80 32 48
Iowa 78 33 45 79 38 41
Kentucky 68 31 37 45 26 19
Massachusetts 50 44 6 40 49 9
New Jersey 87 37 50 75 45 30
North Carolina 83 29 54 93 40 53
Oklahoma 79 25 54 84 29 55
Texas 79 29 50 81 40 41
Washington 80 37 43 61 42 19

Gaming Strategy Two - Counting Only Some of the Children

It is a shameful time in American history when political leaders from both parties have joined at the national level in making disastrous policy changes that have done little good and much damage.

The worst damage is done by allowing states to lower standards, use easy tests and fail to count millions of children because of their color, race, ethnicity and economic status.

This failure to count children is a disgrace. What will it take for parents and citizens to wake up to the deception being practiced in the name of educational reform?

Note the article, "NCLB Loopholes" April, 2006 No Child Left. Many states managed to gain permission from the Ed Secretary to set high numbers for each sub group before they can be counted against a school. By approving sizes of 40-50 students, the Ed Department effectively condoned and approved an exclusionary policy that amounted to saying that these children do not matter. Despite the rhetoric about NCLB being a law for the disadvantaged, the reverse has proven true. The President and his team who are fond of attacking critics for the "soft bigotry of low expectations" have overseen a program that created two million invisible children based on their race and social class - the harsh bigotry of exclusion.

Loophole Articles

Gaming Strategy Three - Educational Triage

Jennifer Booher-Jennings of the Columbia University Department of Sociology has written extensively of the damage being done to children as a result of NCLB and testing pressures in teachers and schools. In a recent Phi Delta Kappan article at she outlines the way schools will focus extra resources on certain students while ignoring others seen as a poor investment. Instead of leaving no child behind, the actual effect of NCLB is to reward schools that do just that.

Booher-Jennings calls this destructive and cynical focus educational triage.

By educational triage, I mean the process through which teachers divide students into safe cases, cases suitable for treatment, and hopeless cases and ration resources to focus on those students most likely to improve a school's test scores. The idea of triage, a practice usually restricted to the direst of circumstances, like the battlefield or the emergency room, poignantly captures the dynamics of many schools' responses to NCLB. In the name of improving schools' scores, some students must inevitably be sacrificed. And the stakes are high -- for schools, which face serious sanctions for failing to meet adequate yearly progress targets; for students, who increasingly face retention if they do not pass state tests; and for teachers, who are judged by the number of students they ''save."

She also lists other ways that schools and states may attempt to game the system:

Yet, despite the stated intent of NCLB to improve outcomes for all students, particularly those who have been historically neglected, educators and others may adopt a series of "gaming" practices in order to artificially inflate schools' passing rates. Such practices include giving students a special education classification to exclude them from high-stakes tests, retaining students in grade to delay test-taking, diverting attention away from subjects not evaluated on high-stakes tests, teaching to the test, and cheating.

Collateral Damage

In addition to ignoring many children, NCLB has lowered the quality of education for all children by fostering a factory approach to education that is mediocre, mind-numbing and likely to increase dropout rates as students find school tedious and unrelated to their human needs and interests. Heavily scripted lessons and standardization are the fashion as districts strive to raise test scores. The classic goal of educating the whole child has been laid aside in a rush to create reading and math results that keep the NCLB blade from cutting deep. Instead of teaching students a dozen literacies, the curriculum has narrowed to just two in many schools.

© 2006, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.