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Is ‘No Child Left Behind’ creating subpar law students?

Posted Mar 14, 2013 9:53 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Michele Goodwin.
Photo from University
of Minnesota.

A culture of “teaching to the test” fostered by the No Child Left Behind law may be creating a generation of law students who lack skills for critical thinking and good writing, according to University of Minnesota law professor Michele Goodwin.

Goodwin makes her case in an opinion column for the Conversation blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Because of the law, the emphasis in elementary and secondary education has changed from teaching higher-level thinking to educating students so they will perform well on standardized tests, Goodwin says. The impact is already being felt in colleges and law schools.

Law professors noted the problems caused by the cultural shift at a January conference sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools, Goodwin writes:

“According to some conference participants, students’ writing skills are the worst they have ever encountered. Moreover, they complain that students are less sheepish and more blatant about just wanting ‘the answers.’ The challenge of learning on their own is so overwhelming to some law students that it has become far more common for students to demand their professors’ notes.

“One professor at a top-20 law school recently confided that he has to teach his students how to write business letters. A professor at another elite school complained that grading exams is far more difficult now because the writing skills of students are so deficient that each exam requires several reads.”

Goodwin notes a point made by Washington University in St. Louis law professor Brian Tamanaha. He says law schools are complicit in the problem because of their emphasis on the Law School Admission Test, a factor in the rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Schools offer scholarships to those with high LSAT scores and then boost the number of paying transfer students in an effort to make up for lost funds. "Increased transfer classes are less about the students," Goodwin writes, "and more about recouping the losses from paying for so many scholarships—not to those in need, but to those who have great test scores."

Updated on March 15 to correct a typo in the photo credit.

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