Federally Mandated Standardized Testing: If Nothing Is Done to Change a Bad Public Policy, It Never Goes Away

The beginning of the new year is a good time to look around and consider that the way things are is not how they have to be. Annual standardized testing, the pivotal public policy that shapes U.S. children’s experience of public schooling today, is now recognized by most educators and many policy experts as a failed remnant of another time.

However, Miguel Cardona, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, has quietly allowed this policy to continue and permitted us all to cruise through one more school year without seriously confronting its implications. Even though Betsy DeVos cancelled the federal testing mandate in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 struck, on February 22 of last year, an acting assistant secretary of education sent the state departments of education a letter announcing that—despite that some students were in class, others online, and some in hybrid online/in-person classes due to COVID-19—standardized testing would take place as usual in the 2020-2021 school year.  Despite considerable pushback from educators, that decision has never been reconsidered, and in the current school year federally mandated standardized testing is happening as usual.

Of course Secretary Cardona’s focus has been dominated by COVID’s disruption in public schools, and the problem is likely to continue as the new Omicron flareup threatens to intensify the pressure this winter despite the rollout of vaccines.  Even amidst these ongoing challenges, however, the time has come for the Secretary of Education to work with Congress to confront the overuse of standardized testing as the yardstick for measuring the quality of public schools and supposedly holding them accountable. Good leaders are responsible for initiating needed reforms when flawed public policy undermines the institutions where our children learn.

January 8, 2022 is the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law, there was no federally mandated high stakes testing across all U.S. public schools.

NCLB did not, as promised, enable every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve overall school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps. Sadly, it did shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

Today states are required by No Child Left Behind’s 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to identify their state’s bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a way to blame and punish educators and supposedly “incentivize” them to work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe:

  • Many states publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns “a turnaround strategy.”
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score “proficient” on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools” and focuses the rest of the above punishments on the schools in the poorest communities.
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight to wealthy exurbs where aggregate test scores are higher.

Here are three academicians considering problems with high-stakes standardized testing from the point of view of their areas of expertise.

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains a primary reason why high-stakes standardized testing unfairly punishes the schools, the teachers, and the students in America’s poorest communities: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Not only is the test-and punish regime unjust, but it also violates accepted theory about how children learn. Nobody thinks drilling and cramming for standardized tests is an inspiring kind of education, but in their 2014 rebuttal of the test-and-punish regime, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass point out that the test-and-punish era has also pushed out more important work at school: “Teaching problem solving and creativity is indeed possible, particularly when the teacher is an engaged teacher who uses culturally relevant pedagogical practices. But the issue lies not in whether it is possible, but in whether the teaching of these skills is disappearing…. (G)iven the current education system with its ever-increasingly test-based accountability systems, classrooms are becoming more controlled. Thus, environments in which problem solving and creativity are likely to be promoted are less evident… It should come as no surprise that when teachers focus on multiple ways of knowing and celebrate the wealth of knowledge their students bring to the classroom, collaborative environments spring up. In these environments, students and teachers participate in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, including issues that are often of direct concern to their local community… It is through conversation, not didactic instruction, that students are able to articulate what they know and how they know it, while incorporating the knowledge of their peers and their teacher to further their own understanding.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 238)

Finally, in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, a fine new collection of essays edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, education historian Diane Ravitch summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime: “Many schools were punished. Many teachers and principals were fired, their reputations in tatters… Nonetheless, Congress and state leaders remained fixated on raising test scores. NCLB remained in force until 2015, when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which removed the deadline by which all students would be proficient and dropped some of the other draconian punishments. But what did not disappear was the magical belief that a federal mandate based on annual standardized tests would produce better education. In the grip of the policymakers’ obsession with testing and ranking and rating and sorting, schools that were important to their communities were closed or replaced or taken over by the state because their scores were too low. Forget the fact that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and affected by important factors like disabilities and language ability.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy,  p. 26)

When he campaigned for President in 2019, Joe Biden rejected standardized test-based school accountability. This year, 2022, is a good time for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide real policy leadership and ensure that President Biden can realize his promise.

New Research Yet Again Proves the Folly of Judging Teachers by Their Students’ Test Scores

The Obama Administration’s public education policy, administered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was deeply flawed by its dependence on technocracy. In the 1990s, Congress had been wooed by researchers who had developed the capacity to produce giant, computer-generated data sets. What fell out of style in school evaluations were personal classroom observations by administrators who were more likely to notice the human connections that teachers and children depended on for building trusting relationships to foster learning.

Technocratic policy became law in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the omnibus No Child Left Behind Act. Technocratic policy reached its apogee in 2009 as Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top grant program became a centerpiece of the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress to ameliorate the 2008 Great Recession.

In an important 2014 article, the late Mike Rose, a professor of education, challenged the dominant technocratic ideology.  He believed that excellent teaching cannot be measured by the number of correct answers any teacher’s students mark on a standardized test. Rose reports: The “classrooms (of excellent teachers) were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch reviews the technocratic strategy of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top. To qualify for a federal grant under this program, states had to promise to evaluate public school teachers by the standardized test scores of their students: “Unfortunately, President Obama’s Race to the Top adopted the same test-based accountability as No Child Left Behind. The two programs differed in one important respect: where NCLB held schools accountable for low scores, Race to the Top held both schools and teachers accountable. States were encouraged to create data systems to link the test scores of individual students to individual teachers. If the students’ scores went up, the teacher was an ‘effective’ teacher; if the students’ scores did not go up, the teacher was an ‘ineffective’ teacher  If schools persistently had low scores, the school was a ‘failing’ school, and its staff should be punished.” (Reign of Error, p. 99).

Ravitch reminds readers of a core principle: “The cardinal rule of psychometrics is this: a test should be used only for the purpose for which it is designed. The tests are designed to measure student performance in comparison to a norm; they are not designed to measure teacher quality or teacher ‘performance.'” (Reign of Error, p. 111)

This week, Education Week‘s Madeline Will covers major new longitudinal research documenting what we already knew: that holding teachers accountable for raising their students’ test scores neither improved teaching nor promoted students’ learning:

“Nationally, teacher evaluation reforms over the past decade had no impact on student test scores or educational attainment. ‘There was a tremendous amount of time and billions of dollars invested in putting these systems into place and they didn’t have the positive effects reformers were hoping for.’ said Joshua Bleiberg, an author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University… A team of researchers from Brown and Michigan State Universities and the Universities of Connecticut and North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed the timing of states’ adoption of the reforms alongside district-level student achievement data from 2009 to 2018 on standardized math and English/language arts test scores. They also analyzed the impact of the reforms on longer-term student outcomes including high school graduation and college enrollment. The researchers controlled for the adoption of other teacher accountability measures and reform efforts taking place around the same time, and found that their results remained unchanged. They found no evidence that, on average, the reforms had even a small positive effect on student achievement or educational attainment.”

Arne Duncan is no longer the U.S. Secretary of Education. And in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with a different federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), in which Congress permitted states more latitude in how they evaluate schoolteachers. So why is this new 2021 research so urgently important?  Madeline Will reports, “Evaluation reform has already changed course. States overhauled their teacher-evaluation systems quickly, and many reversed course within just a few years.”  Will adds, however, that in 2019,  34 states were still requiring “student-growth data in teacher evaluations.”

In 2019, for the Phi Delta Kappan, Kevin Close, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, and Clarin Collins surveyed teacher evaluation systems across the states.  Many states still evaluate teachers according to how much each teacher adds to a student’s learning as measured by test scores, a statistic called the Value-Added Measure (VAM).  Practices across the states are slowly evolving: “While the legacy of VAMs as the ‘objective’ student growth measure remains in place to some degree, the definition of student growth in policy and practice is also changing. Before ESSA, student growth in terms of policy was synonymous with students’ year-to-year changes in performance on large-scale standardized tests (i.e., VAMs). Now, more states are using student learning objectives (SLOs) as alternative or sole ways to measure growth in student learning or teachers’ impact on growth. SLOs are defined as objectives set by teachers, sometimes in conjunction with teachers’ supervisors and/or students, to measure students’ growth. While SLOs can include one or more traditional assessments (e.g., statewide standardized tests), they can also include nontraditional assessments (e.g., district benchmarks, school-based assessments, teacher and classroom-based measures) to assess growth. Indeed, 55% (28 of 51) of states now report using or encouraging SLOs as part of their teacher evaluation systems, to some degree instead of VAMs.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act eased federal pressure on states to evaluate teachers by their students’ scores, but five years since its passage, remnants of these policies linger in the laws of many states.  Once bad policy based on technocratic ideology has become embedded in state law, it may not be so easy to change course.

In a profound book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, the Harvard University psychometrician, Daniel Koretz explains succinctly why students’ test scores cannot possibly separate “successful” from “failing” schools and why students’ test scores are an inaccurate and unfair standard for evaluating teachers:

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Closing Achievement Gaps Will Require Closing Opportunity Gaps Outside of School

Last week this blog highlighted Advocates for Children of New York’s new report documenting that more than 10 percent of the over one million students in the New York City Public Schools—101,000 students—are homeless. These students are living in shelters, doubled up with friends or relatives, or living in cars and parks. What are the academic challenges for these homeless children and other children living in families with minimum wage employment, unemployment, unstable housing, food insecurity and inadequate medical care?

Although federal law continues to require that states measure the quality of schools and school districts with standardized tests, all sorts of research documents that students’ standardized test scores are indicators of their life circumstances and not a good measure of the quality of their public schools. Students concentrated in poor cities or scattered in impoverished and remote rural areas are more likely to struggle academically no matter the quality of their public school.

Here are just two examples of this research.

In 2017, Katherine Michelmore of Syracuse University and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan studied data from Michigan to identify the role of economic disadvantage in achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “We use administrative data from Michigan to develop a… detailed measure of economic disadvantage… Children who spend all of their school years eligible for subsidized meals have the lowest scores, whereas those who are never eligible have the highest. In eighth grade, the score gap between these two groups is nearly a standard deviation.” “Sixty percent of Michigan’s eighth graders were eligible for subsidized lunch at least once during their time in public schools. But just a quarter of these children (14% of all eighth graders) were economically disadvantaged in every year between kindergarten and eighth grade… Ninety percent of the test score gap we observe in eighth grade between the persistently disadvantaged and the never disadvantaged is present by third grade.”

In How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong, Douglas Downey, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University describes academic research showing that evaluating public schools based on standardized test scores is unfair to educators and misleading to the public: “It turns out that gaps in skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children are largely formed prior to kindergarten entry and then do not grow appreciably when children are in school.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 9) “Much of the ‘action’ of inequality therefore occurs very early in life… In addition to the fact that achievement gaps are primarily formed in early childhood, there is another reason to believe that schools are not as responsible for inequality as many think. It turns out that when children are in school during the nine-month academic year, achievement gaps are rather stable. Indeed, sometimes we even observe that socioeconomic gaps grow more slowly during school periods than during summers.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 28)

In the context of this research, Downey examines the six indicators the Ohio Department of Education uses to evaluate public schools when it releases annual report cards on school performance. Although the state has ceased branding public schools with “A-F” letter grades, Downey explains that the state of Ohio continues to ignore the role outside-of-school variables in students’ lives when it blames educators and schools for low aggregate test scores:

“The report card for schools is constructed from six indicators and not a single one of them gauges performance independent of the children’s nonschool environments. First is achievement, which is based on the percentage of students  who pass state tests… By far, the biggest determinant of whether a school produces high or low test scores is the income level of the students’ families it serves… Second is the extent to which a district closes achievement gaps among subgroups. But performance on this indicator can also be influenced by factors out of the school’s control… Third, schools are gauged by the degree to which the school improved at-risk K-3 readers… Of course, it is much easier to make progress on this indicator if serving children who go home each evening to reinforce the school goals. Fourth, schools are evaluated on their progress, an indicator based on how much growth students exhibit on math and reading tests. This kind of indicator is better than most at isolating how schools matter, but again, growth is easier in schools where students enjoy home environments that also promote learning… Fifth, the graduation rate constitutes a component of the district’s (rating)… but this is only a measure of school quality if the likelihood of a child’s on-time graduation has nothing to do with the stress they experience at home, the access they have to health care, or the quality of their neighborhood.  Finally districts are evaluated on whether their students are prepared for success.  This indicator gauges the percentage of students at a school viewed as ready to succeed after high school… and is determined by how well the students performed on the ACT or SAT and whether they earned a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam… These report cards ‘are designed to give parents, communities, educators, and policymakers information about the performance of districts and schools,’ but what they really do is mix important factors outside of school with what is going on inside the schools in unknown ways.” (How Schools Really Matter, pp. 115-116)

What these reports and many others demonstrate is that we cannot expect that no child will be left behind merely because Congress passes a law declaring that schools can make every American child post proficient test scores by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s (and now the Every Student Succeeds Act’s)  policies—which have branded schools unable quickly to raise aggregate test scores as “failing schools”— have unfairly targeted school districts located in poor communities. In 2017, the Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz published The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better in which he shows that ameliorating opportunity gaps in the lives of children is not something schools can accomplish by themselves.

Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Koretz continues: “(T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

Ohio Legislature Has Created a Path to End State School District Takeovers: Will It Ever Be Fully Implemented?

This post is about bad public policy and how, once bad policy has been passed by a state legislature, it is hard to ever get rid of it.

Specifically the subject is Ohio House Bill 70, a failed law that has, over time, proven the failure of state takeovers of public-school districts as a strategy for raising students’ aggregate standardized test scores.  Ohio HB 70 is a relic of the kind of thinking Arne Duncan thrust upon our nation’s school districts.

In an October 2021 context, however, we can consider the story of Ohio’s six year experiment with state school district takeovers as a cautionary tale today when groups like FreedomWorks, No Left Turn in Education, Parents Defending Education, and Moms for Liberty are demanding that legislatures give oversight of their children’s history and government classes to parents and when a Utah legislator introduces a bill providing that “all materials for social science classes in K-12 (schools) be vetted and posted online for parents to review in advance.” Once state legislators pass ideological legislation, however unworkable it proves to be, it is very often difficult to amass enough bipartisan support for repeal.

Back in 2007, a think tank called Mass Insight, published The Turnaround Challenge, paid for with a big grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Turnaround Challenge prescribed rapid turnarounds of so-called “failing” public schools: “Despite steadily increasing urgency about the nation’s lowest-performing schools—those in the bottom five percent—efforts to turn these schools around have largely failed. Marginal change has led to marginal (or no) improvement. These schools, the systems supporting them, and our management of the change process require fundamental rethinking, not more tinkering.” Here is what Mass Insight proposed as the solution: “Require failing schools and their districts to either pursue more proactive turnaround strategies or lose control over the school. Make fundamental changes in the conditions under which those schools operate. Develop a local marketplace of partner/providers skilled in this discipline.”  The Turnaround Challenge became the bible for two of Arne Duncan’s most notorious programs: Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, both of which set out to condition federal grants to states on their rapid turnaround of public schools as a cure for low aggregate test scores. State takeovers or closing schools altogether were The Turnaround Challenge‘s ultimate penalty for public schools where scores did not quickly rise.

The consultants at Mass Insight assumed that schools alone could be quickly transformed to raise the scores of masses of children living in concentrated poverty, despite that research correlates standardized test scores with family and neighborhood income. The consultants blamed teachers and school administrators and assumed, in the case of state takeover, that a governance change would quickly create equal opportunity for the children and that achievement gaps would close despite that alarming opportunity gaps persisted.

In Ohio, the state did not try to turnaround schools by state takeover until the summer of 2015.  In a very important article this week, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reminds readers of this history: “The words ‘academic distress commission’ didn’t exist when Ohio House Bill 70 was introduced in 2015.  The 10-page bill was to allow schools to partner with local organizations and offer health care and social services. Then came the 67-page amendment—added into the bill, then passed by the full Ohio Senate and House on the same day, June 24, 2015. The amendment required academic distress commissions… to appoint a CEO to replace superintendents if the school district had prolonged ‘F’ grades on the state report card. The amendment gave the CEOs more control than the district superintendents ever had. CEOs can replace principals, close a school, reopen it as a charter school, and find a nonprofit or company to run a school.  If that doesn’t improve report cards, CEOs can suspend or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement with unions, except for reducing insurance benefits or the base hourly pay rate… CEOs took over schools in Youngstown in 2016, in Lorain in 2017, and in East Cleveland in 2018.”

Under HB 70, each of the three school districts was taken over by a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO. The elected local school board continued to be elected and to meet, but it had no power.  Hancock reports that in “the three Ohio districts taken over by the state due to low standardized test scores, district report card grades have largely stayed the same.” For much of the ensuing six years, Youngstown and Lorain have endured bitter school board meetings, conflict between the elected board and the Academic Distress Commission, and widespread community outrage (See here, here, here and here.)

Hancock quotes Mark Ballard, President of Lorain’s elected Board of Education: “When people are appointed out of Columbus, and they don’t live in this community and don’t understand the dynamics of the community, it’s very frustrating… When people bring concerns to a locally elected member, there’s nothing they can do because there’s people out of Columbus really calling the shots.”

Hancock reports that in Ohio’s new FY 22-23 state budget, passed at the end of June, the Ohio Legislature created a possible path out of state takeover for the three school districts: “The new way out requires the districts to propose, and the Ohio Department of Education to approve, three-year improvement plans… If the district(s) (meet) a majority of the benchmarks after three years, they can return to normal operations…. However, the distress commissions will remain on as advisors to the district and don’t completely go away until after the district successfully hits most of the benchmarks in the three-year plan. If the districts fail to hit most of the benchmarks in their plan, they get two one-year extensions. If they can’t improve in that time, they will return to the control of the distress commissions. The districts (will) be run by superintendents during the transition.”

Here is a hopeful development: “Each district submitted its plan at the beginning of October. The Department of Education has until the end of the month to review them. It can request revisions, and the districts would have 15 days to respond.”

Everyone hopes that the three districts’ plans will be approved and that the state will work with the districts to return them to the control of their local school boards. Of course, with Ohio’s still underfunded school finance formula, there will not be a massive infusion of funding to support the needs of each district’s families and children. All three communities remain among Ohio’s poorest.  Hancock reports that state representative Michele Lepore-Hagan, a Democrat representing Youngstown, “questions whether the plans and revisions will ever be good enough to transition out of state control. ‘I hope seriously that this administration and the Ohio Department of Education are acting in good faith… We are concerned it might be a facade.'”

Ohio’s failed state takeover “turnaround” plan was a piece of ideological legislation passed in the middle of the night and based on what, at the time, was extremely popular, neoliberal corporate-style education policy. The children, families, and elected boards of education in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland continue to struggle under this plan which has proven to churn community upheaval and outrage in Youngstown and Lorain while it failed to raise aggregate standardized test scores. The current legislative reform plan does not even fully eliminate HB 70; its phase out, assuming it is finally completed, will take three more years.

State legislators ought to look what happened in Ohio with the last decade’s wave of ideological school reform and take heed. Today’s far right advocates—demanding freedom for parents to shape the school curriculum according to their personal beliefs—are proposing dangerous policies which, if they are enacted, will prove difficult to eliminate.

Another Year of Meaningless Standardized Testing: Will Congress Ever Reconsider the High-Stakes Testing Mandate?

While this fall the education news has been filled with conflicts about vaccine and mask mandates and fights about Critical Race Theory, the results of last year’s standardized testing in public schools have begun to arrive.

That is, the scores have begun to be reported from the school districts that administered the mandatory tests last spring.  All the states were required to conduct the testing despite that some schools had opened in-person, others were remote and some were on hybrid schedules. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona did, however, offer states some flexibility.  They could put off the testing until summer or even this fall depending on their circumstances, and they could exempt some students and schools under difficult circumstances.

Because the school year was disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19 in March of 2020 Betsy DeVos had cancelled testing in 2019-2020, but last February, even before Miguel Cardona was confirmed as education secretary, an acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum sent a garbled letter that mandated some form of the universal standardized testing: “We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students. The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year… We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements… A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year… Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022, and ensure transparency to parents and the public… It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup… As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices.”

These are the tests that Congress requires under the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act, the tests first required two decades ago by No Child Left Behind for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. They are the foundation of a two-decades-old scheme to hold schools accountable. In his abstract and garbled letter, Rosenblum did say that states that applied for waivers would not have to use the test scores in this one year to hold schools accountable.

Now, the scores from the tests for the states whose schools did administer the tests last spring—and not in the summer or this fall, as Secretary Cardona permitted—are coming in.  For example, Michigan’s Bridge Magazine reported: “The share of students scoring at a level considered ‘proficient’ or higher in English language arts dropped from 2019… in grades 3-7.  The share of students considered ‘proficient’ or higher inched upward for grades 8-11.  Scores in math nosedived in the seven grades in which the test is administered… dropping by more than 5 percentage points in grades 4, 5, and 6. Less than 30 percent of fifth-and sixth-graders who took the test score at a level considered ‘proficient’ or higher… Still it’s likely that the true learning skid is even worse than the data… indicates. In typical years, schools are required to have at least 95 percent of students take the M-Step. That federal rule was relaxed this school year because of the pandemic—schools had to give the test, but students, particularly those taking classes online, could opt out… The percentages of students who took the English language arts and math M-STEP tests in the spring ranged by grade and subject from 64 percent to 72 percent, and varied wildly between school districts.”

So, what does all this mean?  That is the subject of a profound blog post from a retired Michigan teacher and wonderful writer who used to have a regular column in Education Week, Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan explains: “Here’s the truth: this set of test scores tells us nothing for certain. The data are apples-to-oranges-to bowling balls muddled.  If anything, if you still believe test scores give us valuable information, the data might be mildly encouraging considering what students have encountered over the past 18 months… The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even ‘lost learning’ any more, without a mountain of numbers.  Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children.”

Remembering a Michigan state school board meeting she attended following the passage of No Child Left Behind, Flanagan describes how she began to grasp of what’s wrong with our national testing regime: “(T)he Board was doing what they were supposed to do: managing the data generated by federally imposed standardized testing, grades 3-8.  Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.”

Flanagan continues: What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased—the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: ‘If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cuttoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—Does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?’  The phrase ‘set the bar high’ was used repeatedly. The word ‘proficient’ became meaningless.”

Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has been tracing the impact of No Child Left Behind’s testing mandate for two decades. Now, watching the release of data from the tests that were administered last spring, Schaeffer summarizes what has happened this year: “Earlier this year, thousands of parents, educators and community leaders endorsed a call to suspend high-stakes standardized testing in America’s public schools because the results would not be valid, reliable, or useful. Critics of testing have made that argument for years, but they seem especially relevant given that tests were being given during a pandemic that had upended education since spring 2020.”  Now: “States are releasing their spring test scores, and … wait for it… the results are exactly as predicted.  Scores declined across the board, and historically underserved students fell further behind.”

Schaeffer points out the flaw in the justification Secretary Cardona used to justify requiring testing this year: “So far, there’s little evidence demonstrating that data from this round of standardized exams is being used to address the pandemic’s expected impact, as testing advocates had promised. It’s hard to find examples of states or cities targeting additional resources to schools serving the neediest students..”

Schaeffer wonders: “Were spring 2021 exams really helpful in promoting academic quality and educational equity?  Or was this just another politically driven ‘testing for the sake of testing’ exercise? ”

The question—What to do about too much ineffective standardized testing?— has much larger implications than for just last school year and the current school year. On January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. As our nation anticipates the 20th anniversary of test-and-punish school accountability, we all ought to demand that Secretary Cardona and Congress reconsider the entire two decades of the failure of federal policy demanding that states turn around the schools deemed “failing” based on their aggregate test scores. We know that the premise of No Child Left Behind—that all American students could be made to score “proficient” by 2014—was proven a failure.

The National Education Policy Center’s newsletter this week questions the myth underneath the No Child Left Behind Act—that schools can be quickly turned around so that they suddenly raise low aggregate test scores and close achievement gaps. Opportunity gaps among students are far more complicated:

“(D)ifferences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S. arise primarily outside of schools… Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economic inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income, and wealth…  There are two primary ways to change this. The first way is the most obvious: directly reducing poverty by improving the social safety net…. Yet most U.S. policymakers have instead embraced a second approach, at least rhetorically… provide children with high-quality public schooling…. placing enormous expectations on the public school system.”

Instead of a No Child Left Behind demand that schools alone close opportunity gaps, the National Education Policy Center is researching “insights about the need to integrate school-centric and social-system reforms and programs….”

Secretary Cardona and Congress ought to pay attention, especially now as Congress considers funding  President Biden’s Build Back Better program for extending the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, establishing federally funded universal pre-Kindergarten and expanding of Full-Service Community Schools.

The Danger of Conflating Public School Stability with Preservation of the Status Quo

Two major education organizations have recently released public opinion polls describing—after last year’s disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic—Americans’ opinions about public education in general and respondents’ views of their own communities’ public schools.  It is fascinating to compare the sponsoring organizations’ interpretations of the meaning of the results they discovered.

Phi Delta Kappa International describes its mission: “Established in 1906, PDK International supports teachers and school leaders by strengthening their interest in the profession through the entire arc of their career.”  As an organization supporting public school educators, this year PDK probed how the pandemic affected parents’ attitudes and more broadly the opinions of adults in general toward public education.  PDK’s executive director Joshua Starr interprets the new poll results: “For 53 years, PDK has polled the American public on their attitudes toward the nation’s public schools…  (A)s we all know, the 2020-21 school year was anything but typical. So, we decided to take a different tack, setting aside our usual approach to the survey and… zeroing in on the questions that matter most right now: How have the public schools performed during the pandemic, and what are Americans’ main concerns about the coming 2021-22 school year? The results offer a rare glimmer of hope at a difficult time. Not only have the nation’s educators persevered through the hardest school year in memory, but according to our findings, most Americans—especially parents with children in the public schools—remain confident in their local schools’ ability to provide effective instruction and leadership.”

In contrast, several of Education Next‘s corporate reformers describe the new poll from the point of view of that publication. Education Next is edited by  Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Peterson’s program, a pro-corporate reform think tank, is housed in the Harvard Kennedy Center and is separate from Harvard University’s department of education. Education Next is the house organ for Peterson’s program.

Here is the spin of Peterson and three colleagues as they describe the results of the new Education Next poll: “Calamities often disrupt the status quo… Yet not all such catastrophic events lead to an appetite for change… The 15th annual Education Next survey investigates how Americans are responding to the worst pandemic since 1919.  In the realm of education, a desire for sweeping reform might well be expected, given the pandemic’s particularly severe toll on K-12 schooling…  In the political sphere, expectations for large-scale innovation are running high…  Our survey results should temper expectations for major shifts in any political direction and post a warning to advocates of any stripe. At least when it comes to education policy, the U.S. public seems as determined to return to normalcy after Covid as it was after the flu pandemic a century ago… The shifts are not large enough to be statistically significant for some items: in-state tuition for immigrant children, higher salaries for teachers when the respondent is informed of current pay levels, testing students for accountability purposes, tax-credit scholarships, and merit pay.  On other items, such as preschool education, the survey does not include information on the state of opinion in both 2019 and 2021, but we find no evidence of a surge in demand for change and reform.  All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

The Phi Delta Kappa poll should reassure those who have been worried that masses of parents have given up on public schools disrupted by long sessions of virtual schooling and hybrid in-class/online schedules.  “Majorities of Americans give high marks to their community’s public schools and public school teachers for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.  Further, the public is broadly confident in schools’ preparedness to handle the challenges ahead in 2021-22. Teachers fare especially well in these assessments.  About two-thirds of adults overall, and as many K-12 public school parents, give their community’s public school teachers an A or B grade for their pandemic response.  Parents are almost as positive about their community’s public schools more generally, giving 63% As or Bs, though the positive rating slips to 54% among all Americans… People whose public schools mainly used a hybrid model are 7 to 17 points more apt than those with fully remote schools to be confident in their schools’ preparedness to reopen fully this fall…. Confidence on catching up on academics and dealing with social-emotional impacts is higher still among those whose schools mainly used in-person learning.”

Education Next compares polling results from its 2019 poll to this year’s survey, and points to declining support in every single category of policy change, from the kind of reforms Education Next supports—merit pay for teachers, annual testing, Common Core state standards, national standards in general, charter schools, universal private school tuition vouchers, low-income vouchers, and tuition tax credits; to reforms public school supporters prefer—more school spending and increased teacher salaries, to reforms in higher education—free public four-year college and free public two-year college. The Education Next poll even asks respondents about the impact of teachers unions: “A plurality of Americans (50%) say unions made it neither easier nor harder to reopen schools in their community.” “In short,” explains Education Next, “The public seems tired of disruption, change, and uncertainty. Enthusiasm for most, perhaps all, policy innovations has waned… All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

It is significant that these polls highlight something that neither organization names explicitly: Public schools are the only widespread institution outside the family itself that parents can count on to support their children, to shape a dependable family routine, to support parents as they learn to understand and appreciate their children’s challenges and gifts, and simply to introduce children to their broader community in a safe and structured setting.

Despite the worries reported in the press that parents might have lost faith in their public schools due to the incredible challenges posed by COVID-19 and some reports speculating that children will leave in droves to online or private alternatives, PDK’s poll affirms that most people will return their children to the public schools they continue to count on as the essence of their communities.

Education Next‘s spinners, determined to impose their set of technocratic reforms, forget to identify public schools as essential institutions and forget that public schools represent the identity and the history of each community. In describing the poll, Education Next conflates the meaning of stability with something else entirely: returning to the status quo.  People who love the stability of their community’s public schools may desperately want school improvement, but they generally don’t choose the kind of technocratic change Education Next supports and includes in its new poll: merit pay, annual standardized testing, the Common Core state standards, national standards, privately operated charter schools, and publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

Parents and members of the community whose grandchildren and neighbors attend public schools more likely define essential change in the context of particular improvements needed for safety, security, and educational opportunities for the community’s children and adolescents: the return of a shuttered school library—small classes to bring more personal attention for each child—the return of a school nurse—an art program—a school orchestra—enough guidance counselors to ensure that all high school seniors have help with their college applications—better chemistry labs and a Calculus class at the high school—an additional school social worker—Community School wraparound services to support families who need medical care, better after-school programs, and summer enrichment.  Most families don’t look to find this kind of reform in a privatized charter school or by carrying a voucher to a private school.

Education sociologist Pedro Noguera reminds us, “What I try to remind people is that despite their flaws, public schools are still the most stable institutions in many cities, particularly the poor cities. The job now is to figure out how to make them better, not simply how to tear them down, especially given there’s no other institutions stepping up.”

Recently as I explored the books of the late Mike Rose, a profound advocate for the importance of America’s system of public education, I found this passage examining what ought to be the definition of school reform. Rose was not a fan of the status quo; instead he was a strong believer in the need for ongoing public school improvement: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination.” (Why School? p. 203)

Rose continues: “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

Mike Rose would have been reassured by this year’s Phi Delta Kappa poll, which demonstrates that parents are sticking with the public schools—not leaving in droves as some people had feared.  Rose would have called us all to keep on fighting to ensure that our public schools are well resourced to ensure that every child discovers opportunity at school.

Remembering Mike Rose

Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, died in August.  Those of us who value thinking about education practice, education philosophy, and education policy will deeply miss Rose’s blog and his wisdom. But we will continue to have his books, and now is a good time to revisit some of them.

Rose was an educator, not a technocrat. In our society where for a quarter of a century education thinkers and policymakers have  worried about the quality of the product of schooling as measured by standardized test scores, Rose calls our attention to the process: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate— or constructed at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?”  (Why School?, p. 14)  In Why School?  Rose explores a very different philosophy of education than what was embodied in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top: “I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34)

In the mid-1990s, Rose spent several years traveling around the United States visiting the classrooms of excellent teachers. The product of this work is Possible Lives, perhaps the very best book I know about public schooling in the United States and about what constitutes excellent teaching. Rose begins the book’s introduction: “During a time when so many are condemning public schools—and public institutions in general—I have been traveling across the country visiting classrooms in which the promise of public education is being powerfully realized. These are classrooms judged to be good and decent places by those closest to them—parents, principals, teachers, students—classrooms in big cities and small towns, preschool through twelfth grade, places that embody the hope for a free and educated society that has, at its best, driven this extraordinary American experiment from the beginning… Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination. I visited schools for three and a half years, and what struck me early on—and began to define my journey—was how rarely the kind of intellectual and social richness I was finding was reflected in the public sphere… We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries… We are offered, by both entertainment and news media, depictions of schools as mediocre places, where students are vacuous and teachers are not so bright; or as violent and chaotic places, places where order has fled and civility has been lost.  It’s hard to imagine anything good in all this.” (Possible Lives, p. 1)

Here, however, are Rose’s conclusions in the book’s final chapter: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms in addition to whatever else we may understand about them, represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society. These rooms were embodiments of the democratic ideal… The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.” (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)  In his stories of four years’ of visits to public schools, Rose presents our nation’s system of public schooling as a defining American institution.

Rose appreciates and celebrates the work of public school teachers: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable.  They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal…  As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… A teacher must use these various kind of knowledge—knowledge of subject matter, of practice, of one’s students, of relationwithin the institutional confines of mass education. The teachers I visited had, over time, developed ways to act with some effectiveness within these constraints—though not without times of confusion and defeat—and they had determined ways of organizing their classrooms that enabled them to honor their beliefs about teaching and learning… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms. Thus the high expectations they held for what their students could accomplish… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423

With his strong interest in the life of the classroom and the experience of education, Rose definitely does not ignore education policy, but he looks at policy decisions from the point of view of the students, their families and the community.  Here is how he examines one of No Child Left Behind’s and Race to the Top’s strategies: —school closure as a turnaround policy: “Closing a school and transferring its students is unsettling in the best of circumstances… For low-income communities, the school is often one of the few remaining institutions. Transfer also brings to the fore issues with transportation, with navigating streets that mark gang turf, with shifting kids from the familiar to the strange. And all this happens in communities already buffeted by uncertainty about employment, housing, health care, and food on the table… Race to the Top… raises broad questions about innovation in public education and makes funding contingent on change… But the model of change has to be built on deep knowledge of how the organization works, its history, its context, its practices. The model of change in Race to the Top seems to be drawn from ideas in the air about modern business, ideas about competition, innovation, quick transformation, and metrics—an amalgam of the economistic and the technocratic.  This is not a model of change appropriate for schools….” (Why School? pp. 63-65)

Rose was not, however, a fan of the status quo; he was a believer in the need for ongoing school improvement, but not the technocratic, top-down, ideological school reform imposed in recent decades: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.” (Why School?, pp 203-204)  “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

In the age of Teach for America, created by Wendy Kopp as her senior project at Princeton for the purpose of inserting brainy Ivy Leaguers into classrooms because their privileged backgrounds were thought to be gifts to the children of the poor, Mike Rose’s perspective is countercultural.  Rose instead wrote about the experiences of students discovering higher education as the first in their families to enroll in college. Lives on the Boundary and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education examine the work of community colleges, the challenges their students face economically as they struggle to pursue an education, and the personal meaning of their experiences apart from the job training they may acquire. And in The Mind at Work, Rose explores the intellectual demands of so-called blue-collar work.

I urge you to read or re-read some of these books as a way to celebrate Mike Rose’s legacy. None of these books feels dated. Rose’s writing is fresh and lucid. He will challenge you to examine the importance of public schooling in these times when corporate, test-based school accountability and school privatization continue to dominate too much of the conversation about education in the United States.

Why Disciplined Messaging on Public School Policy Is So Important

In some states, the new school year has already begun, the COVID Delta Variant is surging, and already everybody is worrying, and legitimately so, about whether and how public schools will reopen. But that is not really the deepest concern for many of us who care about the future of public schools.

Certainly far-right ideologues investing millions of dollars to push corporate school reform and promote school privatization are messaging their own agenda instead of focusing on whether or not schools reopen in person or whether students and/or teachers are required to vaccinate or wear masks. Newspapers, many of which are losing their education reporters to collapsing advertising budgets, have pretty much opted for the obvious topic—school reopening and masking requirements.  You can be sure, however, that ALEC is instead doggedly promoting the expansion of vouchers as its members lobby inside state legislatures, and Nina Rees, who leads the National Association of Public Charter Schools, is ignoring the effects of COVID-19 while she loudly demands that Congress continue to fund charter schools operated by for-profit charter management companies.

Message discipline is a priority for the far right, and, when Betsy DeVos was Trump’s education secretary, her consistent framing was, in one respect, a plus for public school advocates. She was the perfect foil we could attack week after week as she harangued against “government schools,” rejected the need for a “system” of education, and enthused about serving the needs of individual children and catering to the taste of individual parents. Not once did DeVos acknowledge the benefit of public schooling as the center of the social contract.

We could thank Betsy DeVos for keeping us on message, but Chris Lubienski of Indiana University, Amanda Potterson of the University of Kentucky, and Joel Malin of Miami University in Ohio worry about the longer term impact of the language of the far fight on public education policy. These education policy researchers remind us: “Language shapes the ways we think and feel about ourselves and others, institutions such as our schools, and (more generally) about our world. As applied to education policy, it matters whether our nation’s public schools are described as such, or if instead they are framed as ‘failing government schools,’ like they were by President Trump in his 2020 State of the Union Address. Accepting this truth about the power of language holds many implications. So what happens when language is used to build up narratives that contradict accumulating evidence? Can language reconfigure our perceptions of schools in ways that re-orient their purpose?  More specifically, we assert that disparaging language about our schools unhelpfully limits our policy imaginations. Likewise, we show how casting schools as ‘businesses’— and parents as ‘customers’—shapes commonsensical assumptions about the purposes of public schools, but ignores much of the research evidence about how public schools function…  Regarding this language and imagery, for educational leaders and community stakeholders, we encourage vigilant critical analysis of the language used regarding education.”

Certainly under President Biden, the situation for public schools has improved. Biden has articulated support for public schools and public school teachers. And apart from the language he uses, he has made a lot more federal funding available through COVID-relief.  He has promoted—in his FY22 federal budget proposal—investing in Title I with significantly more money for schools in America’s poorest communities, addressing the federal government’s decades-old failure to fund the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and radically expanding federal investment in wraparound Full Service Community Schools.  But Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Education Secretary, has failed to use language to frame a well conceptualized public school agenda. So far, he has chosen not to speak much at all about the past 20 years of corporate, high-stakes-test-based school accountability.

In the absence of vision from Secretary Cardona and with the rapid decline of sufficient exploration of the key issues in the press, it seems important to devote some serious attention to framing a disciplined set of principles. Lubienski, Potterson, and Malin’s article challenged me clearly to name the principles by which I frame this blog. That way, I’ll be able to check back every week or so to be sure I’m staying on-message.

Here are five principles which, I believe, make up the foundation of this blog.

  1. An equitable and comprehensive system of public schools—publicly operated and regulated by law—is essential for protecting the right of every child to appropriate and equitable services and for ensuring an educated public.
  2. School privatization threatens our public schools, threatens educational equity, and threatens who we are as a nation. No state can afford to support three education sectors—traditional public schools, charter schools, and publicly funded private schools.
  3. Rejecting high-stakes, test-based public school accountability is essential for the future of public education. High-stakes testing has narrowed and undermined what our teachers can do in America’s classrooms, undermined the reputation of public schools and public school teachers, driven privatization and public school closures, exacerbated racial and economic segregation, and undermined the future of children and adolescents living in concentrated poverty.
  4. Our society must ameliorate the effects of past and ongoing racial and economic injustice and aggressively support the public schools that serve our nation’s poorest children.
  5. Public school funding across America’s schools is urgently important. Taxation ought to be progressive and must raise enough money to pay for essential basic services including small classes and necessities like libraries and music and art programs. State and federal funding must be distributed equitably to compensate for the alarming disparities in local taxing capacity across America’s public school districts.

Two new books have pointed to the severity of today’s attack on public education even as the Biden administration has begun to turn more attention to the needs of public schools and away from the relentless Trump/DeVos attack. This winter and spring an alarming number of bills were introduced across the state legislatures to expand vouchers, and tiny clauses were hidden in state budgets to divert public revenue out of the public schools and into charter schools and an array of voucher and neo-voucher programs.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire argue: “(T)he present assault on public education represents a fundamentally new threat, driven by a new kind of pressure group. Put simply, the overarching vision entails unmaking public education as an institution.  An increasingly potent network of conservative state and federal elected officials, advocacy groups, and think tanks, all backed by deep-pocketed funders, has aligned behind a vision of a radical reinvention.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. xix)

In Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional law professor Derek Black explores our nation’s history of public education as it is reflected in our founding documents and the fifty state constitutions, and as legal attacks have forced the courts to continue to explore how these documents protect  public schooling and students’ rights as our nation’s promises have been threatened.  Black worries that today’s threats are different in character:  “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised.  But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)

Let’s Not Lose Sight of the Urgently Important Debate about Federally Mandated High-Stakes Tests

It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act was signed by President George W. Bush, there was no mandated high stakes testing across the states. We also ought to remember that NCLB did not, as promised, cause every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps.  Sadly, it did, however, shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

A lot of damage has followed as we have branded the schools serving concentrations of very poor children as failures and punished them through state takeovers, forced privatization, and even school closures.  We have condemned the teachers in these schools as failures. We have published the comparative ratings of schools and thereby redlined particular communities, and accelerated white flight and segregation.

Standardized testing for purposes of school accountability is now mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, No Child Left Behind’s 2015 replacement. Last school year as COVID-19 struck, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the testing, but early this spring, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance mandating that the states would be required to administer standardized tests despite that COVID-19 had upended the school year with a mixture of in-person, hybrid, and online education.

In a letter, dated February 22, 2021, then acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum informed states they must test students this year, but Rosenblum offered school districts some flexibility if they submitted applications for waivers. He also said that this year the federal government would not require states to use the tests for holding schools accountable through penalties for the lowest scoring schools. His letter explains what is permissible but it has spawned considerable confusion: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments. A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”

In March, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter protesting Cardona’s failure to cancel standardized testing in this 2020-2021 school year but at the same time affirming the Cardona plan not to use the tests  for high-stakes accountability. The researchers emphasize the danger of the past 20 years of test-and-punish: “We applaud USED’s recent decision to emphasize the importance of data for informational purposes, rather than high-stakes accountability. In light of research evidence, we wish to underscore the importance of continuing this practice in the future. For decades, experts have warned that the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results. Analyzing the impact of NCLB/ESSA, scholars have documented consequences like curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating… The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting… Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand that they be addressed. But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

This summer, press coverage of the issue of standardized testing has largely disappeared.  But suddenly there is some reporting, because McKinsey & Company, and a test publisher, NWEA have just released reports on tests conducted at the end of the school year.  What’s troubling is that while Secretary Cardona has defined the need for widespread testing for the purpose of gathering information, the new reporting is simply being used to document so-called “learning loss,” which many fear will stigmatize and discourage the children in America’s poorest communities.

Trying to explore both sides of the for-or-against standardized testing issue, Chalkbeat Chicago‘s Mila Koumpilova simply assumes that school districts will want to “quantify the academic fallout” from the pandemic and worries  that if testing is cut back this year, Chicago will lose (according to the old NCLB argument) the chance to hold schools accountable:  “The change also raises questions about what tests, if any, the district might use to rate its schools and evaluate its teachers and principals going forward. The MAP math and reading tests factored into the district’s controversial school ratings program, known as SQRP, as well as employee evaluations, admissions to selective enrollment and other competitive programs, and student promotion to the next grade.”

Koumpilova also assumes that our society needs something test makers brag their products will produce: the chance to prove with data that the poorest children were affected most seriously by the school closures and disruption of COVID-19. “New national data from NWEA shows the pandemic widened pre-pandemic test score gaps by race and economic status, and that those disparities were most pronounced for the country’s youngest students and those attending high-poverty schools. The results are considered among the most comprehensive national accounting so far of academic setbacks.  Without a benchmark to compare pre-pandemic growth, it’s not clear how Chicago would measure its own students’ academic progress.”

Without reminding readers that national testing companies have a vested interest in promoting their expensive products, the NY TimesSarah Mervosh simply quotes Karyn Lewis of NWEA, and one of the authors of new report on the importance of NWEA’s recent test results: “How much did the pandemic affect students?  The latest research is out, and the answer is clear: dramatically. In math and reading, students are behind where they would be after a normal year, with the most vulnerable students showing the steepest drops… ‘It’s a bitter pill to swallow,’ said Karyn Lewis, a senior researcher at NWEA and the lead author of the organization’s report… ‘It just keeps you up at night.’  For example, in math, Latino third graders performed 17 percentile points lower in spring 2021 compared with the typical achievement of Latino third graders in the spring of 2019. The decline was 15 percentile points for Black students, compared with similar students in the past, and 14 for Native students….  The report used data from about 5.5 million public school students in third through eighth grade who took the NWEA’s tests during the 2021 school year….”

Finally, we learn that some states will continue to attach high-stakes punishments to the testing despite that Secretary Cardona has rejected that purpose for this year. Michigan is imposing a third-grade guarantee to hold back students whose reading scores were too low at the end of this school year.  Benton Harbor, Michigan is one of that state’s poorest and most racially segregated school districts. The state has been threatening to dissolve the district or shutter its schools to erase a long running debt to the state, which underfunds school districts in Michigan’s poorest communities.  ProPublica‘s Annie Waldman shows us the struggles of third grade teacher, Ashlee Thompson, assigned to teach—online this year—all the third graders at her school, with 48 originally assigned, a number that grew to 53 and then 79 before the broke and indebted school district hired another teacher and reduced her online class size to 35. Waldman explains that a third-grade guarantee in Michigan will force school districts to retain low scoring students unless Governor Gretchen Whitmer can intervene, and we learn about several of Thompson’s students who face being held back despite the chaos of the current school year.  Research demonstrates that holding kids back damages kids’ self confidence and radically raises the chance they will eventually drop out of school.  Waldman profiles children trying to learn online in crowded and noisy homes, families struggling financially, a teacher overwhelmed with outrageous demands made by her school district as she struggles heroically with her own health problems and tries to raise her own children who are learning at home online as she tries to reach between 35 and 79 students every day.

It is evident that there is widespread disagreement about the meaning, uses, and purposes of standardized testing.  But what began in early spring as a significant discussion of these concerns has faded into spotty reporting about testing here and there and the documentation of learning loss. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa, sets out to explore the issues underneath testing this year, but his analysis quickly gets lost in the weeds of the debate about high-stakes testing and the political controversy that has been raging for years. As we emerge from a school year totally disrupted by COVID-19 and perhaps face another year disrupted by the new Delta Variant of the pandemic, it is a good time to examine the ways high-stakes standardized testing has affected our children, our public schools, and our communities.

And it is a good time to explore how much testing we actually need for the purpose of documenting the effects on children of last year’s disrupted schooling in wealthy and poor communities.  I believe that school districts and school teachers everywhere will begin the school year by learning to know their students,  assessing their students’ particular needs, and planning how to make learning exciting at whatever level the children begin the school year.

If the economic disparities exposed by standardized testing were to motivate states and the federal government to take steps to address economic inequality, then I would find the documentation of learning gaps to be more valuable.  In the meantime, Congress, state legislators, school district leaders and staff at state departments of education ought to be leery of the promotion of widespread testing by the testing companies that stand to profit from selling the tests.