Last December’s newly reauthorized federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, uses the power of the federal government to continue holding states and schools and school districts accountable for raising students’ test scores. However, Congress turned some of the control for how all this will work back to the states, who no longer have to follow so many federal prescriptions but who still have to present an accountability plan and tell the U.S. Department of Education what they are going to do to improve the lowest scoring schools. Gone are No Child Left Behind’s demands that schools make Adequate Yearly Progress; gone are mandatory turnarounds such as school closure and privatization for so-called “failing” schools; gone is the federal requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores as a substantial portion of formal teacher evaluations.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) demands that states come up with their own accountability plans which they must submit for approval to the U.S. Department of Education. What this means is that there is a window for change, but it must bubble up spontaneously across the 50 states. If public school supporters are to achieve any kind of policy that is more supportive and less punitive, we are going to have to organize and begin working for long-term change in the culture of punitive, test-and-punish accountability that has been normalized over the past two decades.
Where to start? A good rule to remember, if you get a chance to testify to any kind of hearing on the plan ESSA says your state must develop, is that the hearing is a good place to present the core principles that underpin your understanding of the mission and importance of well funded and equitable public schools. The U.S. Department of Education itself accepted comments, about 20,000 of them, until the beginning of August on the rules it is developing to implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act. One of these comments, submitted by the Vermont State Board of Education, raises some of the most important concerns as states develop the plans they will be submitting. Although we don’t yet even know whether the federal Department of Education will correct the Department’s draft rules to ameliorate the problems the Vermont letter identifies, Vermont’s State Board of Education models a way to speak to some of the most basic problems in current accountability-centered school policy.
The Vermont letter begins by attacking the very premises of test-and-punish school reform: “Our Board is proud to represent a state where the people support a strong state funding system, enjoy schools that foster high student performance and register narrow equity gaps as compared with the nation. Nevertheless, the opportunity gap is our most pressing concern and is the number one goal in our strategic plan. With these traditions and values in mind, we have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools. With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test scores gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools. Consequently, the continuation of a test-based, labeling and ‘assistance’ model (broadly seen as punishment) has not only proven ineffective, but has had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the people. The encouragement of privatization has been harmful to local democracy, has further segregated a too fragmented nation and has diluted rather than focused valuable resources.” No matter the politics of your state, and even if you think the people in your legislature or Department of Education are faithful testers-and-punishers, in the testimony you present you should repeat what the Vermont Board says here. We must begin proclaiming these values and repeating them across every state.
What specific concerns with the Every Student Succeeds Act does the Vermont letter raise?
- “Education and Accountability is More Than Test Scores: The Narrowness of the Measures” The Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states submit plans that continue to be grounded in standardized-test-based evidence of student achievement—emphasizing each school district’s graduation rate and test scores in two subjects: “The plan relies on what we can easily measure, rather than on what is important. By requiring that test scores in two subjects and graduation rates be given preferential weight, we discourage schools from supporting truly broad opportunities to learn and the skills necessary for a healthy society. In a world where violence and terrorism command the news, the education of our youth to participate in a strong civic life in a democracy is a fundamental skill.” ESSA requires an emphasis on test scores, but the law itself permits states to be creative in the way they comply with the requirement that they begin using multiple measures to evaluate school quality. As part of their accountability plans, states must each choose one or more additional factors (in addition to reading and math scores and graduation rates) by which they will evaluate schools. Here are just some examples of indicators states might choose to report: students’ attendance rates, the percentage of students with access to advanced coursework, students’ access to counselors and other support staff, the school district’s provision of foreign language and fine arts courses, per-pupil expenditures, number of children in pre-Kindergarten, the percentage of English learners who become proficient, and evidence of substitution of restorative rather than no-excuses discipline programs.
- “Summative Labels/Ranking Schools by a Single Score—ESSA requires states to inform the public on the state of education…. But the proposed federal rules propose combining all measures into a single score. The result is an invalid measure with a false precision claiming to be transparent… (D)angerously, with this single measure being so highly test-based, the interaction of test scores with background factors systematically and invalidly penalizes the disadvantaged. The result is that our neediest children are stigmatized through negative labels while we deny them the essential resources… Limiting our vision to scalable attributes, risks the danger of not measuring valuable and important school factors.” It is to be hoped that widespread opposition to the Department of Education’s proposed draft federal rule that required a single summative score—despite the absence of such a requirement in the law itself—will soon have pushed the federal government to amend its draft rule. But single summative ratings are already the norm in many states which award schools and school districts a single grade—A, B, C, D, or F. The states with school district grading systems are already in the habit of awarding “A” ratings to their richest suburban school districts and “F” ratings to poorer urban and rural schools. The statewide ESSA hearings are an important place to protest the use—in federal and state policy—of one overly simplistic and invalid summative rating or letter grade as a way to rate and evaluate schools.
Vermont’s additional comments relate to the way ESSA’s rules will affect its homogeneous population and very small rural school districts.
There is one important issue in ESSA’s rules which the Vermont State Board does not address, but which ought to be part of any testimony on your state’s ESSA plan. ESSA formally eliminates the federal policy, imposed via No Child Left Behind waivers, that states had to agree to rely on students’ standardized test scores for a significant percentage of formal evaluation of teachers. To get their waivers, states agreed to this provision by passing their own state laws that now need to be amended or overturned. We must testify against state laws that persist in tying our state teacher evaluation systems to standardized test scores even though the federal government no longer makes test-score-based teacher evaluation a requirement.
The American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association have both declared the “value-added model’ algorithms for evaluating teachers to be unreliable and unstable from year to year. There are many factors that affect growth in standardized test scores beyond any one teacher’s work. Test score-based evaluation of teachers has also served as a perverse incentive that drives good teachers in the poorest school districts to move to more affluent places where they will be said to be able to “produce” higher scores. There are far more effective ways to evaluate teachers including well established peer assistance and review programs. Teacher evaluation cannot be merely mechanical and must involve efforts not only to judge teachers but also to help them be more effective. There is wide agreement that plans to support and evaluate teachers must involve coaching, mentoring, time for collaboration, and support and evaluation by strong school leaders.
Consider the following definition of teaching by a seasoned trainer of teachers and a writer about education, Mike Rose: “Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others… Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity. You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s. Simultaneously you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers. How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on…. So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces of our culture.”
If we get an opportunity to offer testimony to try to help shape our state’s response to the new federal school accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, we ought to try move our society beyond a reductive obsession with test scores and blame to the kind of more human understanding Mike Rose describes of the meaning of education for our children, our teachers, and our society.