Another Former Supporter of Test-Based Accountability Confesses His Error

After more than a decade of federal test-and-punish education policy, true believers in the schemes spun by corporate education reformers are reevaluating how it has all worked out since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.  One at a time they are changing their minds.  Most notable for recanting her original support is the education historian Diane Ravitch, who has written two books and conducts a daily blog to demonstrate all the ways she was mistaken.

Now Harold Kwalwasser, the former general counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the man who was responsible for handling the dismissal of weak teachers, confesses his error: “One major problem was that we lacked objective measures of teacher effectiveness.  So when the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act brought the nation annual standardized testing for math and reading, I applauded… But 14 years on, I think that’s a mistake.  I believe our exam system is deeply flawed, especially when it comes to to teacher evaluation.”

Kwalwasser makes his case simply and logically: “First, the results are too variable.  Teachers may one year be rated ‘highly effective’ while the next year they are merely ‘effective’ or worse, even though there are no observable changes in their teaching skills or strategies… Second, there is reason to doubt the relationship between test scores and an individual teacher’s competence… Third, we have the vagaries of student class assignment… None of the above even takes into consideration the segregation by race or class of school populations because of the continued (indeed increasing) segregation of housing patterns…. Fourth, the tests are too narrow in scope.  They largely focus on math and reading…. Finally, there is the little matter of the ‘cut score.'”  Because cut scores are usually set artificially high to motivate teachers and students alike to try harder, there is noting objective or scientific about a cut score. “So teacher evaluations are at times as much a statement about politics as teaching ability.”

Kwalwasser is not convinced that standardized tests are necessary at all for the evaluation of teachers.  “Before standardized tests, some districts had great evaluation and professional development programs that weeded out low performers.  Others did not.  Adding test data can’t turn weak programs into effective ones…”

In an endorsement of grade span testing as an alternative to the grind of annual standardized tests, Kwalwasser concludes: “Civil rights advocates worry that without standardized tests, the troubling disparities in our public education system will sink back into the mists…. I concur… Testing at the end of fourth and eighth grade can meet that need.”

Kwalwasser’s critique is sensible and principled, without the rhetoric that clouds today’s usual conversations about education policy.  His standard is the impact of public policy on the people in the schools—the students and their teachers: “Holding teachers and schools accountable is important, but the means should be accurate and fair.  The current standardized test program doesn’t pass muster.”  I urge you to read Kwalwasser’s piece carefully.


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