Suddenly for the first time in years, there is considerable talk about reforming federal policy in education. Yesterday this blog reviewed the way federal education policy has become stuck and discussed an academic paper that seems to have stimulated new thinking by a number of education advocacy and civil rights organizations. Today, the blog will share two new policy statements from prominent civil rights and education policy organizations and review growing protests against the standardized testing that has—due to growing federal and state accountability requirements—come to dominate our public schools.
As this blog described yesterday, in an academic paper published in August, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, Linda Darling-Hammond and Gene Wilhoit propose that federal law stop merely blaming teachers and punishing the public schools in the poorest communities when, as we all surely know, there is massive inequity of investment by states and wide variance across school districts in their capacity to raise revenue locally. A just society, Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit suggest, should be reciprocally accountable for investing significantly in the public schools that serve our society’s most vulnerable children– addressing gaps in opportunity as a primary way to address gaps in school achievement.
Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper seems to have united commitment across national advocacy organizations around the concept of reciprocal accountability. First eleven of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations sent a joint letter to President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Congressional leaders, a letter that echoes the proposals in the paper published by Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit. Last week this blog covered the new civil rights letter here. The civil rights organizations are Advancement Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National Urban League, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Council on Educating Black Children, National Indian Education Association, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. Their statement disdains “overly punitive accountability systems that do not take into account the resources, geography, student population, and needs of specific schools. In particular, the No Child Left Behind law has not accomplished its intended goals of substantially expanding educational equity or significantly improving educational outcomes. Racial achievement and opportunity gaps remain large.” These organizations advocate that accountability should measure resource inputs and support the academic, social, emotional, physical health, and cultural well-being of students.
Then seventeen national organizations—including some of the same civil rights groups along with a number of national educational organizations released New Accountability: A New Social Compact for American Education, a document that supports the idea of reciprocal accountability. Sponsors are American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Youth Policy Forum, Albert Shanker Institute, Alliance for Quality Education, Committee for Economic Development, Center for Teaching Quality, Education Law Center, Institute for Educational Leadership/Coalition for Community Schools, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Association for Bilingual Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National School Boards Association, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. The new “social compact” declares: “Accountability in American education must focus both on gathering complete information on the performance of students, educators, schools and districts, and on providing the feedback, resources and supports necessary for their improvement. A fundamental paradigm shift in our accountability regime will be required, as the failed approach of ‘test and punish‘ is replaced with a strategy of ‘support and improve.'” “Genuine accountability rests on shared responsibility for educational outcomes. All of the institutions participating in American education—from the federal government, state governments and higher education to school boards, school districts and schools—must be accountable for the contributions each must make to ensure high-quality learning opportunities for every child. Government must be accountable for equitably allocating adequate resources—dollars, curriculum and learning tools, well-qualified educators, and safe healthy environments for learning—to meet student needs and support meaningful learning.” You are invited to join the authors of the Social Compact for American Education by signing on.
Finally, there is growing conversation about the tests themselves. Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s academic paper also addresses this issue at length and declares: “If meaningful learning for all students is the focus of an accountability system, the system should use a range of measures that encourage and reflect such learning, and it should use those measures in ways that improve, rather than limit, educational opportunities for students. This means we need both much better assessments of learning—representing much more authentically the skills and abilities we want students to develop—and multiple measures of how students, educators, schools, districts, and states are performing.”
The problem is not merely the quality of the tests, however. An enormous concern is the amount and frequency of testing. Sixteen superintendents of large, county-wide school districts recommend that the U.S. Department of Education, even in the waivers it is offering from NCLB’s failed policies, reduce the time and energy being devoted in America’s classrooms to testing by substituting grade-span testing instead of annual testing. They are suggesting that federally required standardized tests be reduced from seven (grades 3-8 and once in high school) to three times (once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school).
Last week Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing was featured as a guest columnist by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post: “Across the nation, resistance to test overuse and misuse reached unprecedented heights in the spring of 2014. The rapidly growing movement built on significant test opposition unleashed in 2013. This year, resistance erupted in more states with far more participants, and it won notable victories such as ending, lessening or postponing graduation exams in at least eight states and easing or ending grade promotion tests.” He describes a growing opt-out movement among parents and adds, “School boards are also resisting test overkill. In New York, about 20 districts refused to administer tests used for the sole purpose of trying out items for next year’s state exams.”
Neill remains sober about the amount of work still needed to grow such actions, however. “The ultimate goals of the movement are to dramatically reduce the amount of testing, end high stakes uses, and implement educationally sound assessments. Progress has been made, but much more must be done. To succeed, the movement must keep rapidly expanding while uniting across lines of race, class and where possible, politically ideology. And it must turn its growing strength into greater victories.”