School Ratings Not Only Tell You Little about Schools, They Contribute to Economic Segregation

Jack Schneider, a professor and education historian at the College of the Holy Cross and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, points out that the school district in Boston, Massachusetts encourages parents to choose from among the public schools across the district.  In a short commentary,  State School Rankings ‘Virtually Worthless,’ Schneider explains that many parents make that choice pretty much based on overall school ratings assigned by the state.

How does Massachusetts calculate its school ratings?  “Each year, the state classifies schools into one of five levels, with the ‘highest performing’ designated Level 1. This practice, though distinct in its details, is in keeping with what is done in the vast majority of states. The theory behind such rankings, whether devised as numerical scores, A-F grades, or narrative labels, is that parents and communities want a clear and simple indicator of school quality. Unfortunately, there are… flaws that make these levels virtually worthless. The first and most obvious problem with state-issued ratings of schools is that they are based primarily on a flawed measure: student standardized test scores.”

Schneider believes such school “grades,” “report cards” and rating systems show parents very little about the quality of schools. Schneider explains all the factors about school quality that test-based ratings omit: “Last fall, MassINC conducted a poll of Boston parents and found that more than two-thirds of them identified as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ all of the following: the quality of the teachers and administrators; school safety and discipline; the school’s academic programming; college and career readiness; class sizes; facility quality; the values promoted by the school; the school’s approach to discipline; and the diversity of the teachers and administrators. These critical dimensions of school quality are mostly ignored in the vast majority of statewide rating systems….”

Also, explains Schneider, “(S)chools are not uniformly good or bad. As most of us know from experience, schools—as structures, organizations, and communities—have different strengths and weaknesses. Schools that are struggling in some ways may be thriving in others. And schools with illustrious reputations often have a lot to work on.”

And finally, Schneider names the reality that school ratings are shaping our society: “Perhaps most importantly, ratings shape the decisions parents make about where to live and where to send their children to school.”  Although Schneider does not explore the details of this important observation,  academic research demonstrates the reasons why school ratings are likely to reinforce growing housing segregation by family income.

Over a half century of sociological research (dating back to the landmark 1966 Coleman report) demonstrates a strong correlation between overall school achievement and aggregate family income. When states rate schools by their aggregate test scores, the schools whose students are wealthy tend to get an A, and the schools serving very poor children too frequently get a D or an F.  Here are academic experts discussing how test scores reflect a community’s aggregate economic level, not school quality.

In 2011, the Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Based on Reardon’s research, in a 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center warning against the continued reliance on No Child Left Behind’s strategy of testing children, rating schools by scores, and punishing the schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo caution policymakers: “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our highest scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board. We must also deal with governmentally determined housing patterns that segregate our children… One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality. This has not happened. Shining a light does not provide the social and educational learning essentials for our neediest children.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in another 2016 National Education Policy Report, summarize what was misguided about school accountability policy imposed by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act: “As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.”

How does this relate to test-based school accountability?  Last fall, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel 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…. 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) Policymakers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Test-and-punish accountability since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was enacted, has condemned as “failing” the poorest schools and school districts whose test scores, according to academic research, are undermined by the economic circumstances of their communities and families. In lock-step, states have bought in to holding schools accountable and exacerbated the problem by ranking schools with numerical rankings or letter grades—again based on standardized test scores—that encourage wealthier families who can afford it to move to affluent communities that brag about A-rated schools and to abandon the schools in poor communities. For sixteen years, school accountability policies mandated by federal and state governments have been contributing to the economic resegregation of America’s metropolitan areas.

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An Urgently Needed New Year’s Resolution for Those Who Care About Public Education

A worthwhile New Year’s resolution would be to honor educators—the people who feel called to help others realize their promise. We live in an era of attacks on the public schools and school teachers, and even on higher education in America’s world-renowned colleges and universities.

A resolution to honor educators would mean we consult educators about the public policies that shape our schools, but in recent years we have listened instead to politicians, philanthropists,  business leaders, and tech titans—Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eva Moskowitz—or Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos.

As it happens, John Dewey—a professor of education, perhaps America’s most famous education philosopher, and an education psychologist as well—published a short, readable education creed in 1897. As an exercise for the new year, indulge yourself by comparing Dewey’s pedagogic creed to the ideas and principles that underpin today’s public education policy driven by business, philanthropy, the tech-savvy, and politicians. Imagine how different our schools might be if school teachers who have studied the philosophy and psychology of education were trusted by the education committees in Congress and across the statehouses.

Here are just four of the concepts explored in Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed.” Dewey’s thinking directly confronts what is happening in our schools driven by high stakes test and punish—charter schools dominated by no-excuses compliance—schools with unworkable ratios of students per teacher—schools oriented to college-and-career prep.

First, Dewey, the psychologist, explains that because all learning comes from within the learner, school must be child- or student-centered.  “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities.  Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. I believe that these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached. I believe that they prophesy the state upon which he is about to enter. I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.”  Therefore, “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.  Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Second, Dewey challenges the idea of school as career prep or college prep. “I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed.  The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation.  As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” “But on the other hand, the only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers.  With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

Third, what about the role of the teacher and the student’s peers?  “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms… For instance, through the response which is made to the child’s instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language.” “I believe that moral education centres about this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of worth and thought… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.  I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis.  The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

And fourth, all education must be social; it cannot happen merely in front of a computer screen. “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness…” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.” “I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. I believe that the community’s duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty… I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment to perform his task… I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.”

Yes! Rethinking the Value of Testing and of Graduation Tests, Ohio Joins More Progressive States

At its meeting on Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education discussed ways to reduce standardized testing along with the urgent need to amend the state’s current demand that high school students pass an overly tough set of end-of-course exams in order to qualify for high school graduation. The board had already eased the graduation requirement for the class of 2018. Now its members have agreed to ask the legislature to add an alternative path to graduation for students in the classes of 2019 and 2020.

The Plain Dealer‘s education reporter Patrick O’Donnell explains: “Statewide requirements that students score well on state tests in order to earn a diploma took effect with the class of 2018, this year’s senior class. But worries about a graduation ‘apocalypse’ or ‘trainwreck’ because of low scores led the board and state legislature to ease the requirements earlier this year, just for the senior class… After debate the last few months, board members now want to extend the same exemptions for the classes of 2019 and 2020… Those include graduating, even if state test scores are poor, by reaching some career training goals, having strong attendance or classroom grades as seniors, doing a senior capstone project or working at a job or on community service.”

On Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education also discussed ways to reduce the overall heavy test burden on students and teachers: “The state school board is asking the Ohio legislature to wipe out three items that add a testing burden to teachers and students—the high school English I exam, WorkKeys tests for some career training students, and requirements that some tests be given just to evaluate teachers.  State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and an advisory panel he appointed recommended these and other changes to the board in June, after statewide outcry over the time spent on standardized testing in schools… Board members voted nearly unanimously for the three reductions Tuesday afternoon… (T)he board and DeMaria agreed that the state needs only the high school English II exam, usually given to sophomores, to meet the federal requirement for an English test in high school. They also agreed strongly with DeMaria’s recommendation to wipe out tests that are given just to measure the effectiveness of teachers.  Districts often give a pre-test at the start of the year, then another at the end of the year, to see how much a teacher taught over the year.”

O’Donnell adds that State Superintendent DeMaria recommends eliminating a number of other tests considered extraneous by his advisory panel.

Ohio’s beginning steps to cut back on the standardized testing that has dominated schools since 2002, when No Child Left Behind became federal law, reflect a broader trend, according to Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest).  FairTest just released a major report, Test Reform Victories Surge in 2017: What’s Behind the Winning Strategies?, which summarizes the effects of broad public opposition to over-testing and some relaxation of federal pressure now that No Child Left Behind has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act: “Widespread opposition to the overuse and misuse of standardized testing is producing a marked shift in attitudes about high-stakes assessments and, increasingly, state and district practices… The drumbeat of concerns includes: the amount of testing; the time it consumes; the outsized consequences for students, teachers and schools attached to test scores; the negative impacts on educational equity for low-income and minority students; and the damage to teaching, learning and children’s futures from the testing fixation.”

FairTest’s report is particularly scathing about the damage for young adults when failure of state-mandated tests denies them a high school diploma: “For tens of thousands of students who don’t drop out but stay in school and complete their other high school graduation requirements, exit exams unjustly confer the status and diminished opportunities of high school dropouts. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement but have raised the dropout rate. Since 2012, the number of states that had or planned to have standardized high school exit exams has plunged from 25 to 13.”

FairTest adds that “seven states have made their elimination of graduation testing retroactive,” creating the opportunity for students previously denied diplomas in Georgia, South Carolina, California, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, and Nevada to apply for the diplomas they were denied as long as they successfully completed all other graduation requirements.

Public opinion has been changing as it has been more widely understood that “passing” cut scores on standardized tests are in many ways aspirational, not realistic. Cut scores that determine children’s futures have not been based on some kind of scientifically determined amount of knowledge children must master; instead they have been set by politicians for the purpose of driving teachers to work harder and faster.  High stakes standardized testing has been particularly punitive for students who start much farther behind.

Here is Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University professor whose new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, exposes the damage inflicted by high stakes testing: “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.” (pp. 129-130)

John Merrow and Thomas Toch Debate Michelle Rhee’s Strategy for Running Urban Schools

A debate about school reform has been raging on the pages of The Washington Monthly—between Thomas Toch, a defender of what is frequently called “corporate school reform” and John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour.  The subject: Washington, D.C. school reform as launched by Michelle Rhee and further evolved during the tenure of Kaya Henderson and others whom Henderson hired.  This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.

Thomas Toch formerly led the think tank Education Sector and now serves as the director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. The July-August, Washington Monthly published Toch’s  Hot for Teachers, a paean to what he believes is a decade of public school improvement between 2007 and 2016 in the nation’s capital. Toch is careful to point out that his subject is broader than Michelle Rhee’s tenure that ended with her resignation in October of 2010. As Toch describes the elevation of test scores across the District, however, and as he celebrates a crackdown on “bad teaching,” improved recruitment and retention of teachers, and broad-scale, data-driven school management, Toch’s rhetoric betrays a pro-corporate-school-reform bias, which must filtered as one reads his story:

Toch appreciates charter schools: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.” He also celebrates Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s strategy for working with school teachers: “Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.”  Before Rhee resigned, “Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital.  She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America…. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education.  It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever… Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by ‘master educators’ from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings.”  Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: “Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.”

Toch’s analysis continues beyond the transition from Chancellor Rhee to Chancellor Henderson. Noting that Henderson learned from Rhee’s mistakes, Toch emphasizes that after Rhee’s exit, Henderson introduced more support for good teaching—career ladders, for example, and collaboration among grade-level teams of teachers.  Toch does betray the top-down reformer’s bias, however: “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

John Merrow, the retired PBS NewsHour reporter who has repeatedly investigated Michelle Rhee’s contentious tenure as the D.C. Chancellor, collaborated with Mary Levy to publish, in the September-October Washington Monthly, a rebuttal to Toch’s story.  Merrow has also expanded this story on his personal blog.  Merrow’s response to Toch centers on the Rhee years, because that is the subject Merrow knows best and because Merrow believes Toch’s distorted portrayal of a D.C. school improvement miracle is grounded in a biased understanding of Rhee’s troubled tenure.

Merrow points to gentrification as the source of much of the test score improvement in Washington, D.C.  He documents that achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income have not closed: “Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

Merrow describes what he calls “central office bloat”: “Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes…. Why so many of these teacher watchers?  Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.” Merrow bemoans the result: a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: “Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.”

As he re-posts his Washington Monthly article on his personal blog, Merrow adds several pages of what he has documented over the years in his investigation of a years’ long cheating scandal in Washington DC, a scandal exposed by U.S.A. Today in March of 2011, but, as Merrow has documented repeatedly, never investigated.  He castigates Toch for (in his July-August article) dismissing the extent of the pressure Rhee was placing on school principals and the widespread reach of the cheating.

Here is some of Merrow’s rebuttal: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

Merrow poses the essential question: “Why would so many schools be driven to cheat?  In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.  The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher scores… The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in these meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.”

Merrow dismisses Toch’s piece as corporate-school-reform hot air: “To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air.  Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth.  That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007-2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.  Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air.  The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, (and) former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan….”

Merrow dubs Toch’s article this summer as merely another draft of hot air.  He blasts Toch’s argument “that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. ”  And he calls Toch a cheerleader who, “obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership.  Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.”

Thomas Toch responds to Merrow’s allegations.  His response is printed by The Washington Monthly at the end of Merrow and Mary Levy’s report, Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz Indicts High Stakes Testing in “The Testing Charade”

Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, is a scathing indictment of our society’s test-and-punish school regime, formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and continuing in the most recent version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Koretz, the testing specialist, is not so critical of standardized testing itself as he is of the high stakes sanctions that Congress attached to the annual tests in No Child Left Behind—punishments that have driven massive pressure on educators that has ruined our public schools:

“Pressure to raise scores on achievement tests dominates American education today. It shapes what is taught and how it is taught.  It influences the problems students are given in math class (often questions from earlier tests), the materials they are given to read, the essays and other work they are required to produce, and often the manner in which teachers grade this work. It determines which educators are rewarded, punished, and even fired. In many cases it determines which students are promoted or graduate. This is the result of decades of ‘education reforms’ that progressively expanded the amount of externally imposed testing and ratcheted up the pressure to raise scores.” (p. 1)

Daniel Koretz’s biography at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes him as an expert on educational assessment and testing policy, and the book describes in considerable detail just how high stakes punishments for schools and teachers have corrupted the results of the tests themselves, narrowed the curriculum, and degraded teaching.

But my deepest interest in the book is Koretz’s depiction of how the testing that was supposed force teachers and schools to better serve poor children, raise their test scores and close achievement gaps has instead truncated opportunity for the very children it was supposed to help. How has test-and-punish narrowed the curriculum to basic reading and math in the poorest schools, and how has it forced teachers to focus on test-prep and coaching instead of enrichment?  How has test-and-punish forced the closing or charterizing of schools in poor neighborhoods? How has evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores resulted in firing principals and teachers in the poorest schools and exacerbated staff turnover?  And what about the children being held back in third grade due to a test score—even when they may be making real progress in reading and the adolescents denied a high school diploma?

Under current federal law, students and schools are given credit for proficiency only when children reach benchmark proficiency scores. A fourth grader who advances during the school year from a first to a third grade reading level will still fail to achieve the fourth grade cut score. Neither the child nor the teacher will be given credit for the child’s improvement: “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.” (pp. 129-130)

Reformers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124) Koretz explains at length and in detail the ways that teachers and principals whose jobs are threatened have resorted to raising scores—coaching for the test, drilling on materials likely to be covered, and in some cases where the pressure was greatest, cheating by erasing and correcting scores.

Koretz quotes Linda Darling-Hammond’s characterization of test-and-punish school accountability: “the kick the dog harder model of education reform.” And he explains: “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)  He suggests first that we stop judging all students and schools by benchmark scores. We must “set goals based on students’ growth, not the level of their performance.” (p. 235)

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss interviews Koretz about his new book, and she publishes an excerpt.

While I have emphasized the sections in which Koretz shows test-and-punish hurting the schools that serve the poorest and most vulnerable children, Koretz is a testing expert, whose primary interest is how high stakes punishments attached to a regime of universal testing have corrupted the entire operation of public schools: “Reformers may take umbrage and say that they certainly didn’t demand that teachers cheat. They didn’t, although in fact many policy makers actively encouraged bad test prep that produced fraudulent gains. What they did demand was unrelenting and often very large gains that many teachers couldn’t produce through better instruction, and they left them with inadequate supports as they struggled to meet these often unrealistic targets. They gave many educators the choice I wrote about thirty years ago—fail, cut corners, or cheat—and many chose not to fail.” (p.244)

Koretz joins a growing number of critics who indict test-and-punish school accountability. What is significant about this book is the thorough and relentless critique by a testing expert who carefully and sometimes technically dissects the evidence.

America’s Dirty Secret

On Sunday, criticizing Ohio Senator Rob Portman for failing to speak out against Congress’s most recent attempt to throw away health care coverage for vulnerable families, Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer columnist and retired director of the editorial page, reminded readers that Portman’s wife serves on the board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. And yet, Larkin explains, Portman voted earlier this summer to throw away significant health care coverage for children. Larkin quotes a letter to Congress signed by the heads of children’s hospitals throughout the country, a letter that wonders: “Children represent the future of the United States. Where are kids in these discussions? Do Congress and the White House see safeguarding children’s health care as a national priority?”

The struggles of poor children have been omitted from our two-decades’ discussion about school reform as well. No Child Left Behind said we would hold schools accountable, instituted a plan to punish schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores on standardized tests, and failed to invest significantly in the schools in poor communities. The failure to address the needs of poor children and their schools has been bipartisan. President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition in Congress brought us No Child Left Behind. President Obama pushed education policy that purported to “turnaround” the lowest scoring and poorest schools by closing or charterizing them. And Obama’s administration brought us the demand that states’ evaluation plans for teachers incorporate their students’ standardized test scores—without any consideration of the neighborhood and family struggles that affect poor children’s test scores or of the immense contribution of family wealth to the scores of privileged children.  Neither Bush nor Obama significantly increased the federal investment to help our nation’s  poorest urban and rural schools. The topics of rampant child poverty and growing inequality—along with growing residential segregation by income—have been absent from of our political dialogue.

Child poverty is well documented. Just last week the Economic Policy Institute presented a simple bar graph showing that one third of Native American and African American children are (still) in poverty.  Although child poverty declined for most racial and ethnic groups in 2016, here are the stark numbers that describe our society’s reality: While only 10.8 percent of white children live in poverty and 11.1 percent of Asian American children live in poverty, 33.8 percent of Native American and 30.8 percent of African American children live in poverty, along with 26.6 percent of Hispanic American children. These are alarming disparities. Native American and Black children are three times more likely to be poor than their white peers.  The Economic Policy Institute argues for raising the minimum wage; expanding refundable tax credits and the food stamp program, now called SNAP; and expanding Medicaid and affordable health care.  When was the last time you heard a politician seriously advocating for such programs?

In August, Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times once again outlined the extent of child homelessness in New York City—a devastating problem for families and children and for their public schools: “There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany… If current trends continue… one in every seven New York City public school students will be homeless at some point during elementary school.”

Harris quotes Anna Shaw-Amoah, a policy analyst at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, the agency which released the data Harris describes: “In every school classroom, that’s two or three kids… And the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in Kindergarten?  The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”

Harris continues: “The growing number of homeless children is part of the fallout of the city’s housing crisis, which has seen a growing number of families in city shelters as rents have risen, federal and state aid has dwindled, and a state rental assistance program ended… The typical homeless elementary school student missed 88 days of school…. Families who have lost their home must make the wrenching choice of leaving a child in a school they know, or transferring them to a school closer to where they are staying. Moving to a new school may further the feeling of dislocation but it makes it easier for the child to get to class.”

What effect does all this have on students?  “Homeless children were more likely than those with stable housing to be on the wrong side of a huge array of indicators. They were more likely to be suspended or drop out, more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services, and more likely to need services to help them learn English. Their proficiency rates on the state math and English exams for third through eighth graders were about 20 points lower than their classmates.”

John Merrow just published Addicted to Reform, a memoir about what he learned during his decades-long career as the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour. The most stunning section of the book describes the cost to our society of what Merrow derides as our society’s addiction to accountability-driven, test-and-punish school reform—the policies that were mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Merrow devotes the second chapter of the book, “Calculate the Cost of School Reform,” to examining the education policy in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. He concludes: “Children, teachers, schools, and society have paid a price for school reform, however well-meaning some reformers may have been. Our addiction to school reform has caused significant collateral damage: a narrowed curriculum, thousands of hours spent on testing and test prep, a demoralized teaching force, the resignations of effective teachers fed up with excessive testing, time and money spent recruiting those teachers’ replacements, huge cuts and occasional bankruptcy proceedings in school districts because of dollars diverted to online for-profit charter schools, and the cumulative negative effects on the public’s view of schools caused by the drumbeat of criticism.”(p.54)

But Merrow’s strongest words are for all those who have refused to acknowledge the impact of poverty on the lives of children and who are content to do nothing about poverty:  “To me, the biggest hypocrites in the world of education are the advocates of school reform who preach that ‘poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ for poor student performance but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is that it’s the teachers’ fault when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate… Even if these so-called thought leaders genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids?  At least thirty states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars… ‘The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts….’” (pp.25-26)

Is It True that Nobody Really Knows What to Do to Help Struggling Schools?

Early this week, in a column for the Washington Post, Emma Brown wondered: “What should America do about its worst public schools?” Does anybody know?  Brown notes that not one of the plans states are submitting to the U.S. Department of Education, as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, seems to include a solid plan to help the lowest scoring public schools.

Brown explains: Congress thought it had answers for the problem of low-performing schools when it passed No Child Left Behind in 2001. The bipartisan law, meant to fight what president George W. Bush called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations,’ laid out consequences for schools that failed to meet escalating performance targets. After a school missed targets for two years, students were allowed to transfer out. After three years, schools had to offer free tutoring. After four and five years, there was a menu of options, from replacing the curriculum to firing staff, reopening as a charter school, or turning over management to state authorities… A decade after the law passed nearly everyone agreed it was broken… Despite some bright spots and success stories, a federal analysis released this year showed that, on average, test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received the money than in those that did not.”

The new version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), keeps the tests but turns the responsibility for school improvement back to the states. Brown adds: “Many in the education world, from state superintendents to teachers unions, applaud this hands-off trend. Each struggling school faces unique circumstances… and deserves a tailored solution shaped by community input—not a top-down directive from faraway bureaucrats.” But Brown quotes several people who worry that scores are unlikely to rise under the new law—most notably the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who surmises, “We don’t know what to do about chronically low-performing schools. Nothing has worked consistently and at scale.”

I certainly agree that nothing we’ve tried lately has worked consistently and at scale. The question about whether we know how to support the schools in our poorest communities, however, has been addressed over the years by academic experts and people with a range of experience in the schools that struggle.  It turns out there is widespread consensus about policies we ought to try.  Here are three examples.

First, last November in Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act, William Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo of the National Education Policy Center examined the new law’s potential to improve schools: “(T)he new law continues to disaggregate data by race and by wealth (and adds new sub-groups) but shows little promise of remedying the systemic under-resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform policies of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies.  Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”  The report continues: “Above all else, each state must ensure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals…  States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role… Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators…. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity…. States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”   Finally Mathis and Trujillo  recommend that any effective school improvement strategy would include, at the very least, early education, an extended school year and day, de-tracking, class size reduction, and school-community partnerships.

Second, just weeks ago, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization spoke for communities of color in a report from a year-long task force that has held a series of hearings across the United States. The specific topic of the NAACP’s report is the organization’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools until significant oversight of these schools is increased. But the NAACP’s task force felt compelled to add recommendations to its report about the urgent need to address generations of underfunding and inequality in the schools located in communities of color: “More equitable and adequate funding for all schools serving students of color. Education funding has been inadequate and unequal for students of color for hundreds of years. The United States has one of the most unequal school funding systems of any country in the industrialized world.  Resources are highly unequal across states, across districts, and across schools, and they have declined in many communities over the last decade.  In 36 states, public school funding has not yet returned to pre-2008 levels—before the great recession, and in many states inner city schools have experienced the deepest cuts.  Federal funds have also declined in real dollar terms for both Title I and for special education expenditures over the last decade.”

The NAACP concludes: “Invest in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity to close the achievement gap… To ensure that all students receive a high-quality education, federal, state, and local policies need to sufficiently invest in: (1) incentives that attract and retain fully qualified educators, (2) improvements in instructional quality that include creating challenging and inclusive learning environments; and (3) wraparound  services for young people, including early childhood education, health and mental health services, extended learning time, and social supports.”

Finally, writing a year ago to then-Education Secretary, John B. King about the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Vermont State Board of Education criticized what its members anticipated would be the continuation of too much testing and too many sanctions, without any real effort to address the impact of concentrated poverty on the students in the lowest scoring schools: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.  Consequently, the continuation of a test-based, labeling and ‘assistance’ model (broadly seen as punishment) has not only proven ineffective, but has had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the people.  The encouragement of privatization has been harmful to local democracy, has further segregated a too fragmented nation and has diluted rather than focused valuable resources.”

For all these reasons, on the very topic of ESSA’s potential for improving schools, this blog surmised last Friday that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement under ESSA. Across the states, schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA. And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

It turns out that the problem of struggling public schools is not really the lack of knowledge about what to do to begin helping the teachers and students in these schools. Our society instead has a moral problem: widespread lack of public will in the United States to help children trapped by concentrated poverty. We refuse to invest in the services that would enrich the lives of our poorest children and support their public schools. We keep talking instead about a far cheaper strategy: creating private lifeboats to help a few children escape.