New Ohio School Report Cards Rate Schools on 5-Star System Instead of Letter Grades, But the Results Still Fail to Recognize What Schools Do

In mid-August, this blog posed the following question: “How has standardized, test-based school accountability changed the way we understand public schooling?” Here is how that post answered the question: “The most basic critique of accountability-based school reform is that its frame is entirely quantitative. School accountability based solely on aggregate standardized test scores fails to measure the qualitative process of education as experienced by students and practiced by teachers.”

Despite the growing critique of high stakes, test-based school accountability, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, requires states to rate their schools and intervene in the schools where aggregate student test scores have not risen significantly.  For years, Ohio has assigned “A” through “F” letter grades for each school and school district, based primarily on standardized test scores.  Last Thursday, however, Ohio released a new state report card evaluating each of the state’s 610 school districts and each individual public school by substituting a five-star system for the letter grades.

Because the U.S. Department of Education has relaxed—during and immediately following the pandemic—the demand that states develop correction plans to turn around the lowest scoring schools, Ohio will grant schools another year of the pandemic-driven reprieve on the imposition of state-imposed improvement plans. Neither will the state aggregate the school ratings into one overall summative score for each school and school district during this year. The Plain Dealer’s Laura Hancock reports, “This year the Ohio Department of Education is not offering an overall rating for each school and district, due to the reprieve on sanctions. In future years, there will be an overall star rating.”

A new five-star rating system is the key change this year. Ohio has rated schools with up to five stars in six categories.  According to Hancock, “The Ohio Department of Education created a 17-page guide to understanding the report cards, which shows how stars will be used….”  Here are the six categories on which schools are being rated and the method for computing the rating, according to Hancock:

  • “Achievement: This component represents whether student performance on state tests met previously established thresholds. It also considers how well students performed on tests overall…
  • “Early Literacy: This area measures reading improvement and overall proficiency scores for students in kindergarten through third grade.
  • “Graduation: This measurement looks at the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate and the five-year cohort graduation rate…
  • “Progress: This measurement looks at the growth students are making based on their past performances…
  • “Gap Closing: This component measures the reduction in educational gaps for student subgroups based on income, race, ethnicity, or disability.
  • “College, Career, Workforce and Military Readiness: This component looks at how well prepared Ohio’s students are for future opportunities, whether training in a technical field or preparing for work or college. This is a relatively new measurement and the full data won’t be completely reported until the 2024-2025 school year. There also won’t be a star ranking for this area.”

In its new rating system, the Ohio Department of Education leaves in place a system based on the assumption that school quality can be measured accurately and summarized with a quantitative methodology. Interestingly, four of the six categories in Ohio’s new system depend on a school’s or a school district’s aggregate test scores, which have for years been highly correlated with a school population’s overall family income. The new five-star method is assumed to be better than the assignment of letter grades even in our age of emojis, where people are quite comfortable with inferring a clear meaning from a visual display of symbols like stars.

A serious problem with the new ratings is that it is utterly unclear whether and how the ratings in any way measure what educators are doing differently from district to district. I looked at the 17-page guide to interpreting the scores.  In the section describing the “Early Literacy” measure, the guide explains: “The Early Literacy Component measures reading improvement and proficiency for students in kindergarten through third grade.”  It is based on students’ third-grade “Language Arts Proficiency” test score, how many students are promoted to fourth grade, and “two consecutive years of data to evaluate how well schools and districts are doing at providing supports needed to help struggling readers become on track with their reading.”

The 17-page guide does not acknowledge the research of Sean Reardon, the Stanford University educational sociologist, who comments on the opportunity gaps that come to school with children as they enter Kindergarten: “We examine… test score gaps because they reflect… differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

There is nothing in the guide to the Early Literacy measure on the new Ohio State School Report Card that acknowledges the early gaps in preparation for reading that children present as they enter Kindergarten. Surely the new Ohio School Report Card’s Early Literacy measure is as much a measure of young children’s experiences outside of school—parents who read with them, and exposure to enriched child care, Pre-Kindergarten, and public library story hours—as it may be to their in-school experiences before they take the third-grade Language Arts Proficiency test that is so key to this measurement.

There are several reasons the Ohio Department of Education chose not to create one overall summative rating for each school and school district this year. The pandemic affected school districts differently with some districts forced to use more online services during COVID-19 upswings and with widely disparate access to the internet and home computers among the state’s children.  State officials imply that they want this year’s five star ratings to be a helpful guide for school districts. But a reporter, grasping the public’s hunger for comparisons, found a way to rank the districts in order merely by adding up each district’s total number of stars and publishing the state’s school districts in order from top to bottom.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter begins his report: “While the new Ohio school report card gives a star rating to various performance categories, there is no overall performance grade assigned for this year. So cleveland.com calculated the total score for all 607 districts… to show which schools scored the best across the board.”

I predict that, even without assigning an overall letter grade for schools and school districts, Ohio’s new, much touted five-star rating system will continue to promote educational redlining across Ohio’s metropolitan school districts.  Prospective home buyers will read the five-star system the same way they have been reading the “A” through “F” letter grade school district rating system. They will continue to want to live in the school districts with the most stars, and the system will, thereby, exacerbate economic and racial segregation as people who can afford it continue to move to pockets of privilege in exurbia. After all, in a follow-up report, the Plain Dealer‘s Jeremy Pelzer notes that “‘suburban, higher-income districts in Northeast Ohio and around the state, not surprisingly, generally received higher report-card ratings…. A dozen school districts in Ohio received perfect scores across the board, including four in Northeast Ohio: Aurora City School District, Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools, Highland Local Schools in Medina County, and Solon City Schools.”  All are higher-income exurbs.

Ohio’s new school rating system appeared just a week after the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an overall critique of school accountability as measured quantitatively primarily by a district’s aggregate standardized test scores.  Strauss reminds readers that, “For several decades now, education policymakers have been obsessed with data-driven accountability—usually with standardized test scores as the key metric. The approach has failed to achieve any of the goals supporters have championed, such as closing the achievement gap, and has instead brought us things like pep rallies to get students excited to take standardized tests and methods to evaluate teachers based on the scores.”

Strauss publishes a piece written by two Northwestern University researchers, both sociologists, who have been evaluating our society’s obsession with ranking and rating.  Simone Ispa-Landa and Wendy Espeland declare: “We are a nation obsessed with lists and rankings, not just for dishwashers and other consumer products. We track our steps, rate our sleep, and go to hospitals with the ‘best ratings.’… In our research, we find that, across institutions, school leaders are pressured to devote enormous time and energy to ‘improving the numbers,’ even when this comes at the expense of making changes that, in private, they acknowledge would be far more impactful for students. Because rankings and other measures change how school leaders do their work and make decisions, current accountability policies have far-reaching implications for school discipline and student mental health at a moment of intense national crisis in child and youth well-being… We should acknowledge that one-size-fits-all metrics do not fairly measure what matters most in many schools…. We should reward schools for innovation, for creating programs that will take time to evaluate. Simple numbers promote simple solutions and can prevent promising programs with long-term positive implications from taking root. Before we head into another school year, let’s look at dismantling the ranking systems that are burdening our administrators… and preventing authentic improvement.”

Ohio’s brand new school report cards—still based largely on each school’s aggregate standardized test scores—neglect to reflect the experiences created by fine educators who meet students where they are and help them experience educational opportunity in classes that are respectful, challenging and emotionally safe.

How Has Standardized Test-Based School Accountability Changed the Way We Understand Public Schooling?

Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, Frederick Hess, head of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute, have been arguing this summer about whether public school reform based on test-and-punish school accountability is dying. For decades, these three men have been central to defending the changes embedded into federal law by the 2002, No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and into state laws across the United States as Arne Duncan’s Department of Education made states comply with these educational theories to qualify for federal Race to the Top grants in 2009.

While these three proponents of accountability-based school reform disagree on where this movement stands today, they all agree on what it is. Petrilli remembers how he defined school reform back in 2006: “There is now a Washington Consensus in education. It has been entrenched since the middle of the Clinton Administration, was integral to the crafting of NCLB in 2001, and for the most part remains intact today. It embraces three big ideas. First, that the nation’s foremost education objective should be closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that external pressure and tough accountability are critical components of helping school systems improve.”

Petrilli explains further how these ideas coalesced: “These ideas took shape as a series of federal mandates, most visibly enshrined in NCLB. States had to set academic standards in English language arts, math, and science; to test students annually in math and reading and regularly in science; and to create accountability systems that would not only report results, but also intervene in chronically low performing schools in very specific ways—the law’s ‘cascade of sanctions.’ Meanwhile, as NCLB was debated, enacted, and implemented, the charter school movement expanded rapidly….”

Finn and Hess add: “This early 21st-century focus on accountability and choice signified a pair of important shifts in Americans’ understanding of K-12 education. In the era before A Nation at Risk, people generally gauged school quality on the basis of inputs, resources, and reputation, not student-learning outcomes… Yet by the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, a ‘good ‘ school had come to mean one with high reading and math scores… (and) the right of parents to select their child’s school was increasingly taken for granted.”

Finn and Hess trace a retreat from the heavy hand of the federal government as the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. They believe the “school choice” strand of school reform is definitely thriving today, but the focus on test-and-punish school accountability has faded.  Importantly they admit that this kind of school reform did not achieve its stated goal of closing achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “Did the movement do any good while it lasted? It certainly yielded unprecedented transparency regarding student achievement. It produced a massive expansion of charter schooling and parental choice. And it pushed educational outcomes to the center of the national conversation about opportunity and economic growth. Yet there’s scant evidence that it improved student outcomes, especially in the upper grades. Meanwhile, by enlisting Uncle Sam as the nation’s school superintendent, reformers helped entangle education fights with broader clashes over politics and culture. Along the way, they narrowed school curricula, dismissed the concerns of middle-class parents, and defined success using a race-centric notion of achievement gaps.”

Petrilli reaches a very different conclusion: “Let’s take a look at the real world shall we? The charter school sector continues to grow, energized by the lackluster response of traditional public schools to the pandemic. The Common Core standards remain in place in a majority of states, even if they go by different names. Annual testing is still here—with better, tougher tests than we had a decade ago. High-quality instructional materials aligned to the standards continue to gain market share. And that’s not to mention the explosion of private school choice (mostly supported by Republicans) or the progress on school funding equity (mostly supported by Democrats)…. Energizing grass-roots support for standards-based reforms would be fantastic….”

Finn and Hess are correct that the wave of support for technocratic school accountability has utterly faded from the national political conversation. But, while Petrilli’s allegation about a wave of high-quality instructional materials over the past two decades is highly questionable, and although there is abundant evidence that public school funding equity has not thrived under the “school reformers” agenda, I think MIke Petrilli has a point. Even while what he calls “the Washington Consensus” has faded, the consequences of test-and-punish school accountability are still very much with us. Our kids in public schools still have to be tested every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and the federal government still forces states to rate and rank public schools by their aggregate test scores.

The most profound long term impact of the whole school reform agenda is deeper, however, than Mike Petrilli acknowledges. The meaning of standardized test-based school accountability is best captured by rhetorician Robert Asen in recent book, School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy. Asen believes that the school reformers significantly changed the way America thinks, imagines, and talks about public education: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, p. 81)

The era of test-and-punish set the stage for thinking of education as a consumer marketplace.

Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff would explain that the movement for school accountability based on standardized test scores changed the frame in which we conceptualize our public schools: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or a bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out our policies… You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’—structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames… Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense.” (Don’t Think of an Elephant!, p. xv)

The most basic critique of accountability-based school reform—whose impact is currently being debated by some of its strongest adherents—Finn, Hess, and Petrilli—is that its frame is entirely quantitative. School accountability based solely on aggregate standardized test scores fails to measure the qualitative process of education as experienced by students and practiced by teachers. Here we can turn to the late Mike Rose, a professor of education and a discerning writer.

Rose considers students’ lived encounters with schooling: “I’m interested… 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) “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity? Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope. But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.  And all this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.” (Why School?, p. 14)

What about the school reformers’ quantitative attempts to measure and evaluate the quality of teachers? (Reminder: A central requirement for states to qualify for a Race to the Top grant was that states evaluate teachers  based on their students’ aggregate standardized test scores.)  In an important 2014 article, Rose challenged this technocratic frame based on his qualitative observations of teachers when he visited their classrooms: 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.”

Although many of us, if asked, will qualitatively describe our own schooling or our children’s schooling from our values and personal experience, aren’t we still likely to cling to the frame of test-based accountability when we think broadly about American public education?  As we read Mike Rose’s descriptions of what really matters in students’ experience and in the practices of their teachers, aren’t many of us tempted to wonder if his thinking isn’t old fashioned? Could most of us even conceptualize a society without quantitative evaluation and the ranking of schools and school districts even though we know that No Child Left Behind’s policies failed to equalize educational opportunity and leave no child behind? I wish I did not fear that, as a society, we are a long, long way from being able to reject the worn out school accountability frame brought to us by the likes of Checker Finn, Rick Hess, and Mike Petrilli.

How Can America Be Supportive of School Teachers and Attract Qualified Young People to the Profession?

The news has been filled with stories of a widespread shortage of teachers as public schools across the U.S. are getting set to begin another school year.

Last week the Washington Post‘s Hannah Natanson reported: “Florida is asking veterans with no teaching background to enter classrooms. Arizona is allowing college students to step in and instruct children.” School districts often struggle in late summer to hire enough teachers and other essential staff to keep class sizes reasonable and ensure that all schools can fully serve their students’ needs. But the shortage seems more acute this year.

Natanson points to “a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents—and sometimes their own school board members—have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues. The stopgap solutions for lack of staff run the gamut, from offering teachers better pay to increasing the pool of people who qualify as educators to bumping up class sizes.”

There is evidence, however, of a deeper problem rarely explored in the mainstream press but frequently named by teachers themselves: two decades of standardized test-based school accountability which forces teachers to emphasize two subjects, reading and math, and demands test prep on basic skills to elevate overall school ratings required by the states and the federal government.  Three years ago, even before COVID-19 utterly upended public schools,  Peter Greene penned a blog post that characterizes teachers’ point of view: “I’ve been saying it. Tim Slekar (a well known education professor and blogger and podcaster) has been saying it. Other people who aren’t even directly tied to teaching have been saying it. There is no teacher shortage. There’s a slow-motion walkout, a one-by-one exodus, a piecemeal rejection of the terms of employment for educators in 2019… Teaching has become such unattractive work that few people want to do it… Respect. Support. The tools necessary to do a great job. Autonomy. Treating people like actual functioning adults. These are all the things that would make teaching jobs far more appealing.”

Two weeks ago, the National Education Policy Center’s newsletter reported on new peer-reviewed research documenting that Greene was correct: teachers want more latitude to shape what happens in their classrooms: “For administrators, policymakers, and educators, the study, published in March in the peer-reviewed journal Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA), suggests several potential solutions to the K-12 version of the Great Resignation… (T)he new study adds to the existing literature through a deep dive into the impact of teacher voice…. (T)he study finds that higher levels of ‘teacher voice’—defined as the level of teacher influence over classrooms and schools—are associated with lower levels of (teacher) attrition, even after accounting for factors also known to impact attrition, such as salary.”

In a recent column republished by the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss, two elementary sschool teachers, Raechel Barone and Karen Engels, write ostensibly to explain what their students desperately need from their schools as we all readjust after the COVID disruption. What emerges from these teachers’ poignant description of what their students need, however, exposes what these teachers themselves desperately need as school gets underway in the fall of 2022: “Ask teachers around the country about their experiences, and most sound eerily similar. There’s simply a big gap between what we’re being asked to do—relentlessly push students to ‘catch up’ from ‘learning loss’—and what we feel we should do for our students. The education policy context we operate within often seems woefully out of step with the actual children in our classrooms.” Barone and Engels define six of their young students’ most basic needs as we begin another school year and our nation tries to control COVID: (1) love, trust and belonging; (2) emotional safety and well-being; (3) affirmation of full identity; (4) sense of agency and power; (5) unstoppable curiosity; and (6) opportunity to master core skills.

Barone and Engels describe what has gone wrong with education policy over the past two decades: “(T)eachers across the country feel excluded from the policy decisions that directly impact their day-to-day instruction… The 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act rightly called out ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ (which President George W. Bush warned against) and decried the stark contrast between the academic test scores of students of different races. But the solution—a relentless focus on math and reading to be measured annually in high stakes assessments—was the wrong solution. Why? Because the solution addresses only one of the six pillars of a classroom where kids can thrive. And in focusing the spotlight on this pillar of foundational skills, NCLB effectively knocked the other pillars loose, unwittingly risking the stability of the whole enterprise of education… We need to loosen our worship of quantitative metrics…. We (teachers) need emotional safety to take risks, to make mistakes, and to receive supportive rather than punitive approaches to our growth.”

Teachers need respect and a sense that they won’t be denied agency in shaping their classrooms and their schools.  But neither can our society be complacent about what has been happening to educators’ salaries.  In June, Bloomberg reported: “Teacher salaries dropped to lowest in a decade during the COVID pandemic… The starting salary for teachers in the U.S. averaged $41,770 for the 2020-21 school year, a 4% decrease from the prior year when adjusted for inflation. Uncertainty drove real wages, which factor in inflation levels, for starting teachers lower, erasing gains made over the course of the last 10 years… Nearly half of all districts in the country offer starting salaries below $40,000, the report found.”

Teachers’ compensation varies across the states as well as across particular school districts within a state.  In April, the Learning Policy Institute published an important resource which compares states’ starting salaries for teachers when adjusted for the cost of living. The report also ranks the states by overall teachers’ wage competitiveness—“how much teachers earn relative to other college-educated workers in that state.” These rankings may surprise you.

Here in order are the top states where teachers’ compensation reaches the level of compensation for other college-educated workers.  At the top is Wyoming, followed in order by Rhode Island, New Jersey, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania.

Here are the ten bottom states where teachers’ compensation lags farthest behind the level of compensation for other college-educated workers.  At the bottom is Virginia, and above in order of worst to best: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri.

Some school districts are using COVID relief (American Rescue Plan) dollars to offer teachers bonuses; after all, funds from this one-time grant cannot be sustained as part of teachers’ contracts in future budget years.  Education Week‘s Stephen Sawchuck points to a new Education Week survey showing that: “Teachers prefer base salary increases. Teachers say the financial strategy that would most encourage them to stay is to cover increases that exceed the cost of living.” But: “No matter how well earned, raises like these are typically an expensive proposition for district leaders.”

We must circle back, therefore, to the core problem: the shortage of states’ public education budgets, too often exacerbated these days by expanded voucher and charter school expenditures. In the newest (December 2021) annual school funding report released by the Albert Shanker Institute, school finance expert Bruce Baker explains that states’ Fiscal Effort to fund schools has declined.  Here is how Baker defines a state’s fiscal effort to fund public education: “Fiscal effort is state and local expenditures in each state as a proportion of its gross state product. Effort indicators assess how much states leverage their ability to raise revenue, and help to differentiate states that lack the capacity to meet their students’ needs from those that refuse to devote sufficient resources to their public schools.”

Baker concludes: “U.S. average effort is at its lowest level in at least 20 years. In 37 states, effort is lower than it was on average during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools. Decreasing effort since 2007 ‘cost’ U.S. schools almost $70 billion in 2019 alone… The total cumulative ‘loss’ between 2013 and 2019 is $400 billion, 9 percent of total spending over this time period.”

How Did the Public Discourse Move from Democracy in Education to Individualistic, Marketplace School Choice?

Robert Asen is a University of Wisconsin rhetorician who studies political discourse. In School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 2021, Asen traces the pivot in public values and political thinking that led from philosopher John Dewey’s definition of progressive public education as the necessary institution for forming our democracy to the adoption in Asen’s home state of Wisconsin of America’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee, followed by Scott Walker’s successful promotion of the statewide expansion of marketplace school choice.

Asen presents four chapter-long “case studies” of individuals and situations that trace the transformation. The first of these profiles explores John Dewey’s thinking about democracy: “Individual and collective represent for Dewey two dimensions of the same vitality of human relationships. Individuals do not grow and mature in isolation, nor do collectives dissolve individuality.” “Individuals may practice democracy as a way of life by building relationships with others. When these relationships bring individuals together in collectives, they enable the creation of community. Community thus represents the embodied practice of organizing public relationships democratically.” “Like democracy, education unfolds through relationships. Dewey criticized traditional pedagogical practices because they fail to build relationships in the classroom.”

Asen acknowledges one absence in Dewey’s thinking about community; he imagined community perhaps as a small New England town. Dewey did not fully grasp what Asen describes as “counterpublics,”—a society  stratified by race and inequality of power: “Dewey and (W.E.B.) Du Bois lived in New York City at the same time, but they did not appear to participate in the same local community… Dewey underscored the importance of face-to-face community ‘without acknowledging any black face or community.'”

In contrast to Dewey, Milton and Rose Friedman “anticipated and influenced a wider neoliberal perspective that has treated markets not as a demarcated realm of society but as a general framework that can be applied to any activity.” “Taken together the Friedmans’ commitments to individuals, freedom, and market-inspired relationships outline a model of publicity and a policy agenda… Freedom orients this public as an ultimate value that elevates individual choice above all while obscuring structured advantages and disadvantages afforded to differently situated people in diverse and unequal societies… (T)his model treats these relationships as free of coercion and the uneven influence of power. In this way, differences between parties to a relationship do not matter in terms of shaping the dynamics of their relationship.”

The book’s third chapter becomes an exploration of the very familiar discourse of Betsy DeVos, but getting there, Asen traces 60 years of public thinking about education beginning with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson—through the 1982 Reagan era publication of A Nation at Risk, which shifted “the focus of education discourse from education as a means of social and political equalization to education as a means to economic prosperity”—to President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit (chaired by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton) which stressed the need for “an educated workforce… in an increasingly competitive world economy” and launched the idea of national education goals—through the passage, in 2001, of No Child Left Behind, which mandated holding schools accountable according to their capacity to raise aggregate standardized test scores every year.

From my point of view, as someone who has paid attention to public education through this entire history, Asen’s judgment about the pivotal role of No Child Left Behind in setting up the discourse for the subsequent growth of school privatization may be the most significant observation in this book: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (p. 81)

Asen moves from this national history and his profile of DeVos to the operation of the discourse of privatization in his home state, Wisconsin. In the early 1990s, state assembly member and Black activist Polly Williams did not follow the Friedmans’ individualist script. Williams was disillusioned with the slow pace of desegregation in Milwaukee: “In her advocacy of vouchers, Polly Williams balanced individual and community concerns. As a policy tool, vouchers permitted individual Milwaukee parents to choose a private school… Yet Williams supported vouchers to help her community.” Ultimately, however, voucher supporters in Wisconsin adopted the Friedmans’ argument: “Against democratic visions, market-based publics offer alternative alignment of means and ends, foregrounding individual choice as the means for realizing… freedom. Nevertheless, as they supported the statewide expansion of vouchers, the Republican-majority members of the Joint Finance Committee associated various ends with vouchers—improved educational outcomes for all students, cost savings, new incentives for public school accountability—that when amplified, ultimately appeared as corollary benefits of choice.”

Finally, Asen profiles widespread public school advocacy across Wisconsin today, advocacy in the spirit of John Dewey, but explicitly recognizing the racial and ethnic diversity that dominates a state where the voters in homogeneous rural communities must somehow accommodate the needs of concentrations of Black and Brown students in Milwaukee and Madison and the residents of those cities must negotiate racism in the state capitol. Asen conducted focus groups of educators and public school advocates about they ways they are finding to lift up the needs of a student population divided by race, ethnicity, and economic inequality: “The partners in this dialogue bring distinct perspectives that offer new insights through their interaction. In his writings, Dewey underscored the value of everyday action as a mode of critical praxis that can turn coordinated individual action into a powerful collective force. Our interviewees explicated the texture and diversity of everyday action through their practices of community-building, unpacking connections among community, local identity, and difference… (O)ur interviewees explicated the dynamics of race and racism (and other potential sources of unity and division) in the actual processes of community-building. They shared Dewey’s commitment to community but recognized tensions, struggles, and frustrations that accompany community engagement.”

In the end, Asen sums up precisely why the Friedman-DeVos discourse is wrong for a democratic society: “By constructing education as a discrete package that individuals may receive separately and variously, dissociation redirects education away from potentially mediating the individual and the collective in the cultivation of democratic publics and toward a role of preparing individuals to pursue their self-interests in market publics.”

Asen affirms the overall vision of John Dewey as the way to move forward: “A democratic education may support students in living their lives productively in coordination with others, pursuing individual interests while recognizing how relationships shape these interests and build life-enriching collective affiliations… A democratic education may foster recognition of the varied consequences of human action, which Dewey understood as the basis of public formation.  Individuals do not choose only for themselves; their choices carry consequences for others who must live with the potentially ameliorative and baneful effects of these choices… A democratic education may illuminate the transformative power of publics for the people who participate in them.”

How Clinton Democrats Joined Philanthrocapitalists to Create Corporate School Reform

I remember my gratitude when, back in 2010, I sat down to read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which connected the dots across what I had been watching for nearly a decade: the standards movement, annual standardized testing, the operation of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish, Mayor Bloomberg’s promotion of charter schools in New York City, and the role of venture philanthropy in all this.

Now over a decade later, many of us have spent the past couple of months worried about pushback from the charter school sector as the the U.S. Department of Education has proposed strengthening sensible regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. We have been reminded that this program was launched in 1994, and we may have been puzzled that a federal program paying for the startup of privately operated charter schools originated during a Democratic administration.

Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont McKenna College, has just published a wonderful book which explains how the New Democrats—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic Leadership Council—brought a political and economic philosophy that sought to end welfare with a 1996 bill called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and envisioned privately operated charter schools to expand competition and innovation in the public schools as a way to close school achievement gaps. Geismer’s book is Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. The book is a great read, and it fills in the public policy landscape of the 1990s, a decade we may never have fully understood.

In the introduction, Geismer explains where she is headed: “Since the New Deal, liberals had advocated for doing well and doing good. However, the form of political economy enacted during the new Deal and, later, the New Frontier and Great Society understood these as distinct goals. The architects of mid-twentieth century liberalism believed that stimulating capital markets was the best path to creating economic growth and security (doing well). The job of the federal government, as they saw it, was to fill in the holes left by capitalism with compensatory programs to help the poor, like cash assistance and Head Start, and to enact laws that ended racial and gender discrimination (doing good). In contrast, the New Democrats sought to merge those functions and thus do well by doing good. This vision contended that the forces of banking, entrepreneurialism, trade, and technology… could substitute for traditional forms of welfare and aid and better address structural problems of racial and economic segregation. In this vision, government did not recede but served as a bridge connecting the public and private sectors.” (p. 8)

Geismer devotes an entire chapter, “Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business,” to the Clinton administration’s new education policy.  She begins by telling us about Vice President Al Gore’s meetings with “leading executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. The so-called Gore-Tech sessions often took place over pizza and beer, and Gore hoped for them to be a chance for the administration to learn from innovators of the New Economy…. One of these meetings focused on the problems of public education and the growing achievement gap between affluent white suburbanites and students of color in the inner city…. The challenge gave venture capitalist John Doerr, who had become Gore’s closest tech advisor, an idea…  The tools of venture capital, Doerr thought, might offer a way to build new and better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice, and competition… Doerr decided to pool money from several other Silicon valley icons to start the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools sat at the forefront of the concepts of venture philanthropy. Often known by the neologism philanthrocapitalism, venture or strategic philanthropy focused on taking tools from the private sector, especially entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and management consulting—the key ingredients in the 1990s tech boom—and applying them to philanthropic work… Doerr and the NewSchools Fund became especially focused on charter schools, which the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council were similarly encouraging in the 1990s.” (pp. 233-234)

Quoting John Doerr, who founded the NewSchool Venture Fund in 1997, Geismer gives us a taste of the kind of rhetoric we heard so often from the corporate school reformers: “‘The New Economy isn’t just about high-tech products,’ Doerr liked to say. ‘It’s about the politics of education, constant innovation and unlimited growth’ and a nonhierarchical meritocracy where ‘the best ideas win.'” (p. 238)

We learn about Al From, who founded and led the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and From’s commitment to charter schools: “Privately, From stressed to the president that charter schools, along with welfare reform, were the most important ways to show his willingness to challenge ‘the old liberal Democratic Party orthodoxy’ and special interest groups like organized labor. Charters could appeal to the white moderate suburbanites whom the DLC believed to be critical to Clinton’s (1996) reelection effort.”  And Clinton bought the new strategy: “The 1996 State of the Union was most notable for Clinton’s declaration that the ‘era of big government is over.’ Elaborating on that theme, he also dared ‘every state to give all parents the right to choose which public school their children will attend; and to let teachers form new schools with a charter they can keep only if they do a good job.'” (p. 244)

When, in 1997, Clinton held an event to celebrate charter schools at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center in California, the school’s founder, Don Shalvey, met another entrepreneur, a guy who had already sold a software company for $750 million, Reed Hastings, who later founded Netflix.  The two raised millions of dollars to sponsor a ballot issue that would raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools. Eventually, without ever mounting the ballot referendum, they reached a compromise with California’s legislature to pass a bill to “increase the number of charters in the state from 250 immediately and add an additional 100 each year after that.” (p. 251)

Beyond Shalvey and Hastings’ efforts in California there were various strategies to grow the scale of the charter movement. In 1994, Clinton’s Department of Education launched the Charter Schools Program, “which provided new seed capital for opening charter schools.” (p. 243)  And there was the ongoing work of the NewSchools Venture Fund: “The NewSchools board and staff especially concentrated on ways to accelerate the scale and impact of the charter school model… NewSchools developed a model of creating a charter network called a charter management organization (CMO), which would be nonprofit but draw on market-based ideas and practices. NewSchools worked closely on this idea with Hastings and Don Shalvey… Shalvey did most of the legwork in developing University Public Schools (it would later change to Aspire), which he envisioned as a ‘scalable model’ that would bring ‘the customer focus and sense of responsibility of a top-notch service organization or consulting firm to public education.’ The name derived from its goal that all the low-income students who enrolled would go on to college or at least ‘aspire’ to do so… NewSchools provided the initial funding but tied the money to student performance and achievement.” (p. 256)

As the movement grew, so did problems for the public school districts where the charter chains located: “For most of the 1990s, charters represented a small portion of the total schools in most urban districts. The growth of CMOs and the new philanthropic investment changed that in the next decade as NewSchools helped to launch or expand twenty CMOs… For the first time, public schools in struggling urban neighborhoods found charter schools making a significant dent in their enrollments and funding. With the perpetual scarcity of funding and resources allocated for public education, it would have particularly deleterious consequences for many urban schools.” (p. 259)

Geismer summarizes the impact of the educational experiment Clinton launched: “Whether successful or not, charters remain effective symbols of the control that wealthy private forces have come to wield over public policy and the ways that the ethos of the New Democrats had a direct impact on the public sector. The Gates Foundation and the tech entrepreneurs of the NewSchools Venture Fund did not just get a seat at the decision-making table but wielded the financial power to control educational policy at the local, state, and federal level.” (p. 260)

More broadly Geismer examines the tragic limitations of Clinton’s experiment in using “the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people. Clinton and his allies routinely referred to microenterprise, community development banking, Empowerment Zones, mixed-income housing, and charter schools as revolutionary ideas that had the power to create large-scale change. These programs, nevertheless, uniformly provided small or micro solutions to large structural or macro problems. The New Democrats time and again overpromised just how much good these programs could do. Suggesting market-based programs were a ‘win-win’ obscured the fact that market capitalism generally reproduces and enhances inequality. Ultimately, the relentless selling of such market-based programs prevented Democrats from developing policies that addressed the structural forces that produced segregation and inequality and fulfilled the government’s obligations to provide for its people, especially its most vulnerable.” (pp. 9-10)

I definitely encourage you to read Lily Geismer’s Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.

Ohio Legislature Must Ensure No More Children Are Held Back by 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law twenty years ago on January 8, 2022, has come to be known as America’s test-and-punish education law, designed by politicians, not educators, and based on manipulation of big data collected from all the states’ standardized test scores

“Test-and-punish” has become a cliche, whose meaning we rarely consider carefully. Unlike the politicians who designed the law, educators who know something about learning and the psychology of education have always known that the law’s operational philosophy couldn’t work. Fear and punishment always interfere with real learning.

The federal government has reduced the imposition of federal punishments when a school’s test scores fail to rise, but states are still required to rate and rank their public schools and to devise turnaround plans for the so-called “failing” schools.  And, despite that some test-and-punish policies were never federally required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many states themselves adopted policies that reflected the test-and-punish ethos. Some of these policies remain in state law as a relic of the NCLB era.

Much of the No Child Left Behind era’s punitive policy was aimed at pressuring school districts and particular schools quickly to raise scores, but one test-and-punish policy which has been particularly hurtful to children themselves is the so-called “Third Grade Guarantee.”  In 2014,  Ohio adopted the Third Grade Guarantee as it was outlined in a model bill distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to ALEC’s A-Plus Literacy Act: “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

During the years of disruption amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Legislature temporarily stopped holding children back in third grade.  Now the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reports on a new effort by two state legislatures to do the right thing and end Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee altogether: “State lawmakers pressed pause on the retention requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. No third-grade students from 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years were held back.” “State Rep. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville… and state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, want to make that permanent with HB 497.”

Staver begins her report by describing what educational research demonstrates is the serious damage the Third Grade Guarantee has caused among Ohio’s children: “More than 39,000 Ohio children have failed the statewide reading test and been mandated, with some exceptions, to repeat third grade since 2014. The idea being kids learn to read between kindergarten and third grade before reading to learn for the rest of their education. But educators, parents, school psychologists and early childhood researchers at Ohio State University’s Crane Center have spent the last decade questioning whether our Third Grade Reading Guarantee works. Whether the stigma of being held back was outweighed by gains in reading comprehension and student success.  A pair of state representatives think the answer is no, and they’ve introduced House Bill 497. The legislation would keep the state tests but not the requirement that those who fail must repeat third grade.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but Staver traces Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.'”

It was the old “A Nation at Risk” story about “failing” public education creating a mediocre America and a lagging economy.  In states across the country, anxious legislators capitulated to the anxiety driven narrative and failed to consider what being held back would mean for the children themselves—for their drive to learn to read, for their engagement with school, for their self esteem, and for what we have learned since is their accelerated risk of dropping out of school before high school graduation. Staver quotes Ohio’s former governor: “Gov. John Kasich made it the focus of his education overhaul, saying the time had come to ‘put an end to social promotion.'”

Staver cites a 2019 report, Has Ohio’s Third-Grade Reading Guarantee Led to Reading Improvements?, from Ohio State University’s Crane Center, whose website describes it as “a multidisciplinary research center dedicated to conducting high-quality research that improves children’s learning and development at home, in school and in the community.” The report concludes: “We found no meaningful or significant improvements to Ohio’s fourth-grade reading achievement from the time the third-grade reading guarantee was implemented.”  Staver adds that Jamie O’Leary the Crane Center’s associate director, interprets the results: “O’Leary had some theories about why. The first was early learning…. Only 41% of children passed the Ohio Department of Education’s kindergarten readiness exam in 2018. Twenty-three percent needed ‘significant support.'”  Finally  O’leary worries about children’s stress inside and outside of school.

Poverty has clearly been a factor: “The districts retaining 2% or fewer of their students are overwhelmingly located in wealthy suburban neighborhoods.” Staver interviews Scott DiMauro, a current teacher and the president of the Ohio Education Association: “‘What that means… is that our must vulnerable students are the ones getting held back.’ That’s a problem for him because several studies suggest retaining children also decreases their chances of graduation. Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew published a study in 2014 about 6,500 pairs of students with similar backgrounds and IQ scores. The ones held back were 60% less likely to graduate high school. She hypothesized that since students routinely ranked retentions as ‘second only to a parent’s death in seriousness,’ the move was so ‘psychologically scarring’ that many never regained their confidence. DiMauro put it this way, ‘Instead of creating lifelong learners, we’re creating kids who hate to read.'”

To offer a contrasting opinion—support for the Third Grade Guarantee, Staver quotes Lisa Gray, the president of Ohio Excels. Staver describes Gray as “the lone opponent to testify against HB 497.” The  Ohio Excels website describes that organization’s history: “Ohio Excels was born in 2018. Leading that effort were former Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joseph Roman, Ohio Business Roundtable President and CEO Patrick Tiberi, Cincinnati Business Committee CEO Gary Lindgren, and Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. Assembling an initially small group of business leaders, they created a non-partisan coalition committed to keeping the business community’s voice at the forefront of policy discussions of education and workforce issues.”

I am hopeful, as the Ohio Legislature considers permanently removing Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by passing House Bill 497, that our legislators will study the research from the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy instead of paying attention to Ohio Excels.  For a long time policymakers have listened to the test-and-punish, corporate accountability hawks and neglected what they might learn from early childhood research and a basic class in educational psychology.  I share Scott DiMauro’s concern—that the Third Grade Guarantee is creating kids who fear failure, who dread being shamed by their peers, who hate to read, and who feel altogether alienated from school.

We Must Renew Efforts to End High-Stakes “Test and Punish” in U.S. Public Schools

As an opponent of federally mandated high-stakes standardized tests in the public schools, I have been worrying that, after educators were unsuccessful last year in pressing Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to stop the testing for the 2020-2021 school year during the pandemic, many opponents of test-based accountability have pretty much stopped pushing back on the testing.

In a column last week for Education Week, Rick Hess worries that supporters of high stakes testing are also struggling.  Rick Hess is the “public school accountability hawk” scholar-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute. He writes: “During the pandemic, I’ve talked to a lot of educational leaders and advocates who believe in the importance of testing and school accountability—but feel like they’re swimming upstream in their efforts to maintain support for these issues. I’ve been struck at how tough many of them have found it to navigate the shifting political currents.”

If advocates on both sides of the school accountability debate are worried that COVID has drawn the public’s attention away from the effects of standardized testing on public education, it seems like a good time to renew advocacy for eliminating annual testing as the driving force in our public schools.

Hess’s subject in his recent column is the federally required administration of standardized achievement tests every year for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The policy was put in place in 2002 by No Child Left Behind and continued in 2015 when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act. For two decades, proponents like Hess have described testing’s goal as holding schools accountable by imposing sanctions on the schools unable quickly to raise the aggregate test scores of their student populations.

Hess acknowledges more problems with standardized testing than I would have expected: “I suspect the current struggles are healthy—they’re a reminder of how much the momentum and machinery of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era allowed testing advocates to coast. Backed by federal mandates, huge foundation dollars, and media allies, they talked in sweeping assertions about the importance of testing and accountability. They’d insist that testing was the key to leaving no child behind… That reading and math tests revealed achievement gaps and that this was crucial to closing them. That the right standards would provide a foundation for the right tests, permitting complex teacher and school evaluation systems to drive system improvement… (T)esting has real shortcomings. State tests aren’t designed to improve instruction. The results don’t come back for months, and parents don’t get any actionable feedback from them.”

Despite his complaints about big problems with test-based school accountbility, however, Hess continues to believe that advocates must strengthen and improve their advocacy for continuing annual high-stakes testing: “Testing and accountability advocates can no longer count on being carried forward by powerful political patrons or deep-pocketed foundations. And, after multiple years of pandemic waivers, they can no longer count on Washington ordering states to hold the line. This should serve as a call to think anew about how to make the case for testing… It’s an opportunity to revisit how to ensure testing really is serving the needs of students, parents, and educators—and learn how to explain that in a distrustful era.”

The problem with Hess’s argument is that he fails to show that high-stakes testing accomplishes any positive purpose, and he neglects to identify much of the damage thrust upon our schools and our society by “test and punish” school accountability.

Making the strongest case against annual standardized testing is Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the construction of standardized tests and their uses at school. Koretz’s book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, written for a wide audience, is the most important book examining how high stakes testing has wrecked our public schools. Koretz cites something called Campbell’s Law to explain what No Child Left Behind brought us twenty years ago: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”(The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Koretz explains what happened to teaching and learning when policymakers attached high stakes to achievement tests that had been designed simply to measure what students are learning. The new purpose was accountability—creating consequences for the schools and the teachers in schools where scores failed quickly to rise. There are a number of ways high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum: “(T)he tested samples of content and skills are not fully representative, either of the goals of schooling broadly or of student achievement more narrowly…(H)igh-stakes testing creates strong incentives to focus on the tested sample rather than the domain it is intended to represent.” (The Testing Charade, p. 16-19)

Federally mandated high-stakes testing in U.S. public schools focuses only on math and reading: “The often unspoken premise of the reformers was that somehow… other subjects, such as history, civics, art, and music, aspects of math and reading that are hard to measure with standardized tests, and ‘softer’ things such as engaging instruction, love of learning, and ability to work in groups—would somehow take care of itself. It didn’t, and that shouldn’t have surprised anyone.  The second reason for the failure is that the system is very high-pressure… Narrowness and high pressure are a very potent combination… A third critical failure of the reforms is that they left almost no room for human judgment. Teachers are not trusted to evaluate students or each other, principals are not trusted to evaluate teachers, and the judgment of professionals from outside the school has only a limited role. What the reformers trust is ‘objective’ standardized measures. This was not accidental.” The Testing Charade, pp. 32-33)

Koretz explains how schools and school districts discovered ways to inflate their scores through test prep and drilling on the material that predictably appears on the tests year after year. But test prep hasn’t been the only consequence. Sometimes schools held struggling middle school students back a grade to prevent their being tested on the high school test. Sometimes teachers were caught providing students with the answers on the tests and in some places teachers were found to have erased and changed students’ answers on the tests. One instance of outright cheating happened in Washington, D.C. under Michelle Rhee, and in Atlanta, the superintendent and many educators were indicted.

Koretz explains that the high-stakes testing regime was particularly punitive for the schools serving the poorest children: “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)

What about the effects of high-stakes testing in society beyond the classroom?  No Child Left Behind imposed federal punishments by requiring that staffs at low scoring schools be reconstituted by firing principals and half the staff, or by requiring that schools be charterized, privatized, or shut down.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan used Race to the Top to force states to tie teachers’ evaluations to students’ test scores. In 2015, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act and stopped imposing federally established harsh sanctions, but ESSA continues—in 2022—to require that every year all the states state must submit plans embodying sanctions to hold the lowest-scoring five percent of public schools accountable.

Here are some of the broader effects of ESSA. Today the federal government continues to require states to rank and rate schools based primarily on standardized test scores. The ranking and rating of schools brands low scoring school districts—usually the districts serving concentrations of poor children—as “failing” and drives middle class flight to wealthier exurbs, thereby accelerating racial and economic segregation. Some states continue to take over low-scoring schools and school districts and turn these districts over to appointed overseers or commissions.  School districts continue to shut down low-scoring schools. Many states locate charter schools and grant voucher eligibility in low scoring school districts. And even though researchers have demonstrated that students’ test scores are an unreliable and invalid way to evaluate teachers and despite that the federal government no longer requires states to use test scores for teacher evaluation, many states haven’t taken the trouble to repeal policies that evaluate teachers by their students’ scores. Many states continue to hold students back in third grade if their reading scores are low, and some states base high school graduation on the state test even for students who have successfully completed all of their required courses.

Rick Hess calls on proponents of high-stakes standardized testing “to think anew about how to make the case for testing.”  I call on opponents of standardized testing to present the reams of academic research documenting the damage wrought by federally mandated, test-based school accountability and to intensify pressure for the elimination of high-stakes testing in U.S. public schools.

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)