Subsequent to the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (1) (NCLB), a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (2) (ESEA), many bold changes in educational and instructional policies have led to the implementation and utilization of standardized testing to determine funding and other tangible rewards or punishments for schools. More recently, with much focus on educator and administrator accountability, rating systems that are based on students' test scores have arisen. In a compensatory effort, a culture of teaching to the test emerged and has only been further entrenched in today's schools thanks to the Annual Professional Performance Review outlined in the Common Core Standards (CCSSI 2017; NGACBP and CCSSO 2010). This forceful emphasis on standardized testing has grown increasingly threatening to the sustainability of a well educated, sociable, and responsible society.
As a result of the pedagogical shift among teachers, many students have missed out on multiple crucial aspects of the emergent and developing literacies that have been identified as essential to academic performance and, more importantly, the ability to think critically. Positive early and elementary literacy environments can mean the difference between the creation of a lifelong reader who is a lover of literature and a lifelong struggling reader (Nathanson, Preslow, and Levitt 2008). As many of the students whose literacy environment at school consisted of standardized test preparation are now reaching the stage of college and career readiness, post secondary educators are struggling to comprehend, accommodate, and adequately prepare these students for positions within their chosen fields (Henry and Stahl 2017). In the area of pre-service teacher education, the situation has become dire, as educators are staring down the barrel of a self-perpetuating cycle.
Liberating students and educators from this attrition-causing path should be a top priority for all. Based on the emphasis placed on early and elementary literacy environments in the literature, changes should be initiated to improve the literacy experiences of the current and all future generations. In the subsequent discussion, I provide a framework and rationale for the improvement of childhood literacy. This framework focuses on three educational pillars that may have a profound effect on a student's experience during literacy instruction: pedagogy, choice, and strategies.
Providing their students with the best education possible is still the dream of all educators; however, recent changes in educational policy continue to decrease educators' abilities to accomplish that dream. Federal laws (e.g., ESEA, NCLB), and competitive grant funding (i.e., Race To The Top) have placed increased emphasis on national standards and accountability, which has had an unintended effect on curriculum and instruction. In 2003, Linn explained, "It is no surprise that attaching high stakes to test results in an accountability system leads to a narrowing of the instructional focus of teachers and principals" (p. 4). Some authorities believe that mandated standardized testing is changing the environment and siphoning off time for instruction and enrichment (Crocco and Costigan 2007; Hynes 2017; Levitt 2007; Nelson 2013; Ruggles Gere et al. 2014). Because of the required testing and accountability implications of students' scores, many teachers have felt compelled to, and do, place greater prominence on material included on high stakes tests than they do on other content areas (Stecher and Hamilton, 2002; Taylor et al. 2001). Instead of inquiring or innovating, students are spending valuable classroom time preparing for the test (Crocco and Costigan 2007; Hynes 2017; Levitt 2007; Nelson 2013; Ruggles Gere et al. 2014).
Laws, Reforms, and Initiatives
No Child Left Behind Act
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (3) mandated that all public schools that received federal funding must administer annual statewide-standardized tests to all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, first language, socioeconomic status, and learning abilities. Under this law, schools were required to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP); the amount of growth that students were expected to achieve by the end of the school year. To reach this goal, federal legislation imposed increasingly more stringent penalties on those schools that failed to achieve AYP in raising low-scoring students to proficiency. These sanctions included: allowing students to transfer to a better-performing public school in the same district, offering students free tutoring, setting aside a portion of federal Title I funds for changing schools and for tutoring, closing schools that continued to miss targets and turning them into charter schools, taking them over, or using another, significant turn around strategy, and ensuring that teachers were "highly qualified." With the goal being that all students reach proficiency, many teachers followed a repetitive "testing script" for daily practice. However, at the time, there was little understanding of how this practice would affect students' engagement, critical thinking, and creativity (Levitt 2007).
Race to the Top and Common Core Standards
Building upon the reforms of NCLB, the Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative of 2009 aimed to generate rigorous standards and improved assessments, implement better data systems in order to provide more in depth information regarding student progress, provide professional development and accountability measures to increase teacher and school leader effectiveness, and place greater emphasis on the rigorous interventions needed to turn around the lowest-performing schools. To advance the objectives of this initiative, the RTTT competition was conceptualized and announced. To obtain the federal funds offered through this competitive grant, states had to agree to certain conditions and create a comprehensive plan to address the initiative. Approval of a state's plan was contingent on the presence of certain concessions, which included: adopt college and career ready standards (which, at the time, were still under development), evaluate teachers based on their students' test scores, and intervene in low-performing schools by dismissing the principal and some, or all, of the school staff (U.S. Department of Education 2016).
For those states that sought to compete for federal funding under RTTT, a national organization of public officials, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association created the Common Core Standards to better prepare K-12 students for college and careers and to ensure that students in different states mastered the same academic principles (CCSSI 2017; NGACBP and CCSSO 2010). Although the adoption of Common Core State Standards was voluntary, the federal government has played a major role in encouraging states to adopt the standards. State education officials and school district administrators, worried by the threat of looming federal sanctions, adopted the Common Core State Standards and accountability measures with little foresight as to the results of the implementation of these changes in policy. To receive funds from RTTT, states had to adopt the Common Core State Standards within two months after their publication. However, some might question how adequately state education officials could review and consider these standards in only two months.
As part of the adoption process, states were expected to generate policies and procedures that would build assessments and data systems to measure student growth. Also, states needed to inform teachers and principals of ways in which they could improve instruction. Plans to recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals, as identified through Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR), were also implemented. Additionally, states were to turn around the lowest achieving schools and increase the number of privately managed charter schools (CCSSI 2017; NGACBP and CCSSO 2010; U.S. Department of Education 2016).
Every Student Succeeds Act
Because of mounting concern that the NCLB's prescriptive requirements had become increasingly unrealistic burdens for schools and educators, the federal administration sought to enact legislation that focused on preparing all students for success in college and careers. In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (4) (ESSA) was signed into law. ESSA was a reauthorization of the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation's national education law and longstanding commitment to equal opportunity education for all students.
Under the ESSA, states have a greater ability to determine their own standards for college and career readiness; however, states are expected to maintain high assessment standards. States are expected to submit their entire plans in the 2017-18 school year, outlining their respective goals around accountability, assessment, monitoring, and support. Before submitting the plans to the federal government for approval, governors, legislatures, and state schools chiefs must agree on the ESSA plans (US Department of Education 2017). In their Education Week article, Wohlstetter, Brown, and Duff (2017) pose the question, "So, are state education agencies--and, more important, state governments--up to the task?"
Although ESSA legislature suggests that states explore innovative assessments, it appears that early submitters may still employ the same assessments that they used under Race to the Top, with an added nonacademic indicator of student performance. Wohlstetter, Brown, and Duff (2017) reported that almost 80 percent of early state submitters are members of a testing consortium, such as the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which was created during the RTTT competition. Only a quarter of states have...