Does Education Secretary Cardona Recognize the Two Huge Problems with High-Stakes Testing?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona insists that federally mandated standardized testing will go on as usual in this COVID-19 dominated year. While his decision feels particularly impractical, intrusive, complicated and disruptive in the midst of COVID-19, the decision is of much deeper concern for two reasons.

This blog will take the holiday weekend off. Look for a new post on Wednesday, April 7.

One would like to think that Dr. Cardona is familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now.  But when Dr. Cardona explained why testing must go on as usual, he didn’t even bother to offer a rationale that addresses any of the reasons experts have insisted he should cancel the tests once again this year. Instead he said we need the tests so that the Department of Education can ensure that federal investment goes to the school districts that need it most. That is such a lovely thought, and if tests were designed and used to gauge needed investment in the poorest communities, it would be wonderful. 

But standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. They are instead the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and now federally mandated across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them.

The first kind of damage caused by high-stakes testing is pedagogical. Standardized testing and its preparation have deeply affected what happens in the classroom itself. Dr. Cardona’s decision to insist on tests in this schoolyear will undermine what students need most when school resumes in some sort of post pandemic normal.

At his Rethinking Learning blog, Rich tenEyck explains: “For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the ‘standards movement’ was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning… These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs. Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified… But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all? What if they tested the recall of many isolated and disconnected facts?… What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids?”

Educator and blogger Steve Nelson diagnoses the special problem with standardized tests this spring when some students are online, others in hybrid settings, some disconnected: “In keeping with the illogical, inhumane, and ineffectual practices of the recent past, the testing industry will look for all the deficits it can find, so as to identify the mythical ‘learning losses,’ so that the least privileged can be remediated using materials produced by the testing industry, thereby further depriving them of the experiences they need most… Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning. Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience. Now more than ever kids need to be back in the good company of their friends and their teachers.”

And Alfie Kohn reminds us: “John Dewey described how a curriculum that’s based on students’ questions and connects with their experiences has ‘an inherent attracting power.’” Kohn continues: “The whole standards-and-testing edifice of our education system consists of expectations and outcomes that have been devised by distant authorities, imposed on students (and teachers!), and enforced by exams to ensure ‘accountability.’ These standards are often breathtakingly granular in their specificity because the whole approach is rooted in an outdated behaviorist model of learning.”

Standards and test-based accountability have moved us far away from the progressive philosophy of education advocated by Kohn, Nelson, and tenEyck. But there is also a second problem is that is structural and systemic: Standardized testing has damaged the very foundation of our entire system of public education. Ohio’s Bill Phillis captured the extent of the problem in his daily comment on Tuesday: “The No Child Left Behind Act has put the nation at risk… After four decades of reform by politicians, teachers are demoralized. Poor school districts are still poor with test scores lower than rich districts. Billions have been largely wasted on charters and vouchers. The voucher and charter advocates have developed powerful lobbies and billionaire partners. The future of the time-honored common school system is in jeopardy.”

Today states are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act to identify the 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 tool to blame and punish educators and make them work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe.

  • Many states create and 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.”
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight.

A lot of people are watching Education Secretary Miguel Cardona carefully to gauge whether he grasps the depth of the problems with high stakes testing, first, pedagogically within our nation’s classrooms, and second, through the test-based system itself that punishes instead of assisting the schools that need the most help.

Diane Ravitch summarizes why people are so concerned that Secretary Cardona has not acknowledged the damage of the high-states testing regime: “These tests have high stakes for students (who might fail to be promoted), teachers (who might be fired if their students’ test scores don’t rise), and schools (which might be closed if test scores don’t go up)… The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools.”


U.S. Public Education Is Driven by High-Stakes Testing. Are the Proficiency Cut-Scores Legitimate?

Back in 2005, I worked with members of the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy to develop a short resource, Ten Moral Concerns in the No Child Left Behind Act. While closing achievement gaps seemed an important goal, to us it seemed wrong that—according to an unrelenting year-by-year Adequate Yearly Progress schedule—the law blindly held teachers and schools accountable for raising all children’s test performance to the test score targets set by every state. Children come to school with such a wide range of preparation, and achievement gaps are present when children arrive in Kindergarten.  At that time, we expressed our concern this way:

“Till now the No Child Left Behind Act has neither acknowledged where children start the school year nor celebrated their individual accomplishments. A school where the mean eighth grade math score for any one subgroup grows from a third to a sixth grade level has been labeled a “in need of improvement” (a label of failure) even though the students have made significant progress. The law has not acknowledged that every child is unique and that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) thresholds are merely benchmarks set by human beings. Although the Department of Education now permits states to measure student growth, because the technology for tracking individual learning over time is far more complicated than the law’s authors anticipated, too many children will continue to be labeled failures even though they are making strides, and their schools will continue to be labeled failures unless all sub-groups of children are on track to reach reading and math proficiency by 2014.”

Of course today we know that the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to motivate teachers to work harder to raise scores. Policymakers hoped that if they set the bar really high, teachers would figure out how to get kids over it.  It didn’t work.  No Child Left Behind said that all children would be proficient by 2014 or their school would be labeled failing. Finally as 2014 loomed closer, Arne Duncan had to give states waivers to avoid what was going to happen if the law had been enforced: All American public schools would have been declared “failing.”

Despite the failure of No Child Left Behind,  members of the public, the press, and the politicians across the 50 statehouses who implemented the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind continue to accept the validity of high stakes testing. Politicians, the newspaper reporters and editors who report the scores, and the general public trust the supposed experts who set the cut scores.  That is why states still rank and rate public schools by their test scores and legislators pass laws to punish  low-scoring schools and teachers. That is why on Wednesday this blog commented on Ohio’s plan to expand EdChoice vouchers for students in low-scoring schools and add charters in low-scoring school districts. The list of “failing” schools where students will qualify for vouchers will rise next school year in Ohio from 218 to 475. The list of charter school-eligible districts will grow from 38 to 217.

In response to the continuation of test-and-punish, I’ve been quoting Daniel Koretz’s book, The Testing Charade about the fact that testing cut scores are arbitrary and  punishments unfair:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do…  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)

As a blogger, I am not an expert on how test score targets—the cut scores—are set, but Daniel Koretz devotes an entire chapter of his book, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets,” to this subject.  Here is how he begins:  “If one doesn’t look too closely, reporting what percentage of students are ‘proficient’ seems clear enough. Someone somehow determined what level of achievement we should expect at any given grade—that’s what we will call ‘proficient’—and we’re just counting how many kids have reached that point. This seeming simplicity and clarity is why almost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… The trust most people have in performance standards is essential, because the entire educational system now revolves around them. The percentage of kids who reach the standard is the key number determining which teachers and schools will be rewarded or punished.”  (The Testing Charade, p. 120)

After emphasizing that benchmark scores are not scientifically set and are in fact all arbitrary, Koretz examines some of the methods. The “bookmark” method, he explains, “hinges entirely on people’s guesses about how imaginary students would perform on individual test items… (P)anels of judges are given a written definition of what a standard like “proficient” is supposed to mean.”  Koretz quotes from Nebraska’s definition of reading comprehension: “A student scoring at the Meets the Standards level generally utilizes a variety of reading skills and strategies to comprehend and interpret narrative and informational text at grade level.” After enumerating some of the specific skills and strategies listed in Nebraska, Koretz adds a qualification to the way Nebraska describes its methodology: “A short digression: the emphasized word generally is very important. One of the problems in setting standards is that students are inconsistent in their performance.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 121-122) (Emphasis in the original.)

Koretz continues: “There is another, perhaps even more important, reason why performance standards can’t be trusted: there are many different methods one can use, and there is rarely a really persuasive reason to select one over the other. For example, another common approach, the Angoff method… is like the bookmark in requiring panelists to imagine marginally proficient students, but in this approach they are not given the order of difficulty of the items or a response probability. Instead panelists have to guess the percentage of imaginary marginally proficient students who would correctly answer every item in the test. Other methods entail examining and rating actual student work, rather than guessing the performance of imaginary students on individual items.  Yet other methods hinge on predictions of later performance—for example, in college. There are yet others. This wouldn’t matter if these different methods gave you at least roughly similar results, but they often don’t.  The percentage of kids deemed to be ‘proficient’ sometimes varies dramatically from one method to another.  This inconsistency was copiously documented almost thirty years ago, and the news hasn’t gotten any better.” (The Testing Charade, pp.123-124)

Koretz continues his warning: “However, setting the standards themselves is just the beginning. What gives the performance standards real bite is their translation into conrcete targets for educators, which depends on more than the rigor of the standard itself.  We have to say just who has to reach the threshold. We have to say how quickly performance has to increase—not only overall but for different types of kids and schools. A less obvious but equally important question is how much variation in performance is acceptable… A sensible way to set targets would be to look for evidence suggesting how rapidly teachers can raise achievement by legitimate means—that is, by improving instruction, not by using bad test prep, gaming the system, or simply cheating…  However, the targets in our test-based accountability systems have often required unremitting improvements, year after year, many times as large as any large-scale change we have seen.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 125-126)

Koretz concludes: “(I)t is clear that the implicit assumption undergirding the reforms is that we can dramatically reduce the variability of achievement… Unfortunately, all evidence indicates that this optimism is unfounded.  We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” (The Testing Charade, p. 131)

Schools Serving Very Poor Children Need Financial Assistance. Instead Ohio Beats Them Up.

Ohio operates a test-and-punish accountability scheme that ranks and rates schools and school districts, and punishes school districts whose scores are low.  All the while, the state has diminished its effort to support public education and equalize funding.

In mid-September, for example, the state released school report cards awarding schools and school districts letter grades—“A” through “F.”  Like two other districts recently taken over by the state after receiving a series of “F” grades, East Cleveland will be seized by the state and assigned a state-appointed overseer CEO to replace its school superintendent and an appointed commission to replace the local school board.  East Cleveland—an economically and racially segregated inner-ring Cleveland suburban school district—is among Ohio’s very poorest.  Historically the residents in the community have voted high millage relative to their incomes to pay for their public schools despite the closure of local industry and the collapse of the economy.  The school districts in two other impoverished communities, Youngstown and Lorain, were taken over in recent years without a subsequent rise in test scores, the state’s chosen metric. Both received “F” grades again this year. The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March that Krish Mohip, the state overseer CEO in Youngstown, feels he cannot safely move his family to the community where he is in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewing for other jobs. Lorain’s CEO, David Hardy tried to donate the amount of what would be the property taxes on a Lorain house to the school district, when he announced that he does not intend to bring his family to live in Lorain.

EdChoice vouchers are a second high stakes punishment in the school attendance zones of “F”-rated schools. EdChoice gives families the opportunity to opt their children out of “failing” public schools by granting their children a chance to leave at public expense.  Writing for the Heights Observer, Susan Kaeser describes how this works in another Cleveland inner-ring suburban school district: “Access to EdChoice vouchers is tied to Ohio’s deeply flawed education accountability system.  If the aggregate test score data for an individual public school falls short, the school is defined as an EdChoice school.  Anyone residing in the attendance area of that school who could have attended that school is eligible for an EdChoice voucher… Nearly every district that has EdChoice designation serves many high-need students.”

Most students using EdChoice vouchers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District which Kaeser describes are attending religious schools, and in fact real estate companies have been marketing houses in the state-designated neighborhoods as qualifying for EdChoice vouchers. Children can qualify for one of these vouchers as Kindergartners, without ever attending or intending to enroll in the public school that anchors the neighborhood. As Kaeser explains, “Once a student receives a voucher it can be renewed until the student graduates… Voucher use has grown exponentially as more schools were designated EdChoice and as recipients renew their vouchers.  This year, 176 Kindergarten students received first-time vouchers (without previously enrolling in a public school), adding to the total of more than 650 recipients.  The expected loss to the CH-UH district this year from EdChoice is $3.7 million….”  The rapid expansion of this program is fiscally unsustainable.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter tracks the impact statewide of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers. Over the ten years since the program’s inception, it has grown from 3,100 to 22,153 students.  Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid.  This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.”  While in FY 2007, $10,368,839 was spent statewide for EdChoice vouchers.  By FY 2017, the amount statewide had climbed to $102,688,259.  Over the decade, a total of $649,158,483 of state and local tax dollars was diverted from public schools to private school tuition through EdChoice vouchers.

All of Ohio’s school districts where students qualify for EdChoice vouchers are districts serving very poor children. And yet, last month in a new report Howard Fleeter explains: “(R)esidential taxpayers in the low wealth districts are paying taxes at nearly the same rate as are their higher wealth counterparts… The Tax Effort measure shows that when ability to pay is taken into account, the low wealth districts are levying taxes at the highest rate relative to their income, while the highest wealth districts are levying taxes at the lowest rate relative to income.”  Fleeter continues: “(T)he lowest wealth… districts have seen their share of total state and local resources fall from 26.4% in FY99 to 23.1% in FY19, while the highest wealth… school districts have seen their share of total state and local resources increase from 22.2% in FY99 to 23.4% in FY19.  Unsurprisingly… a variety of equity measures indicate that equity in state and local school operating revenues improved from FY99 to FY 09, but regressed somewhat from FY09 to FY19.”

When he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Fleeter was less technical and more candid about the state’s school funding formula: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Siegel reminds readers about the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, compounded by state tax cuts promoted by Governor John Kasich and passed by the legislature: “GOP leaders… eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools.  For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out… And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities, including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year… Kasich crafted a new formula designed to drive funding to districts with the least ability to raise their own local funds, but Fleeter and public education officials have argued that it doesn’t quite work properly.”

Through various schemes to privatize education—EdChoice and several other voucher programs along with a large charter school sector—Governor Kasich and the Republican legislature have found another method, in addition to the flawed school funding formula, to divert needed state dollars out of public schools across the state.  State takeovers of struggling school districts and EdChoice vouchers are the clearest examples in state policy of punitive, top down programs that blame and punish local educators in poor communities instead of driving resources and support to communities serving concentrations of children in poverty.

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

In Fine, New Book, Steve Nelson Urges New Education Path that Is Less Dangerous for Children

Steve Nelson’s new book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, is refreshing in the author’s declaration of privilege as he applies all that he has learned in nineteen years as Head of the Calhoun School, a private, progressive school in New York City to an analysis of what’s gone wrong in public school reform over the same period.

Nelson begins: “I am mindful of the position from which I write. Those of us in independent schools enjoy great privilege. This privilege allows us to draw our students into deeply satisfying and thoughtful lives. But we must recognize that these experiences should not be limited to only those children who are wealthy and/or lucky enough to enroll in our schools. Non-sectarian private schools enroll only about 6% of America’s children. So what about the other millions of children? Do we who carry privilege also bear responsibility? I think so.” (p.5)

This is a refreshing and deeply grounded book for these times when so many of our long-held values about education are being tested.

Nelson isn’t utopian; he doesn’t imagine that all public schools could possibly afford to indulge children in classes of 15 students where teachers personally appreciate each student’s learning style and developmental level, but he does believe the constructs of progressive education are a far better way to organize schools than the test-and-punish system that came with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A good teacher, Nelson summarizes the history of progressive education from Socrates and Aristotle through Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, A.S. Neill, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Francis Parker, Felix Adler, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Howard Gardner.  He also explores the neurobiological and psychological research supporting progressive education.

What is Nelson’s definition of the kind of education he’d like to see for more American children in their public schools? “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

Nelson’s critique is biting. Writing at the end of the Arne Duncan era, when mega philanthropy collaborated actively with government to drive “corporate reform,” Nelson comments: “In short, business leaders and free market economic principles have gained increasing control over education. Education has become highly dependent on philanthropy, as public funding has declined.  Philanthropists didn’t make their fortunes as violinists, so they bring their business perspectives to bear on the institutions they support. As the old saying goes, ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.’  Today’s economist-driven version of education reform is the hammer that mistakes America’s children, particularly the poorest kids of color, as nails to pound.”

Nelson considers just how A Nation at Risk misunderstood our educational challenges; how testing and the intense pressure of high stakes works in children’s brains to undermine memory; how children who are drilled never learn to question and inquire; how the no-excuses charter schools enforce compliance and destroy curiosity; how scripted learning aimed at test scores hurts children and makes it impossible for good teachers to do what they know best; and how our notion of IQ which focuses on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is insufficient and leaves out the seven other domains identified by Howard Gardner. And we learn why schools need to nurture these other domains through the arts and physical activity—the classes schools are cutting these days as test prep takes more and more time.

Nelson’s strength is his experience—nearly twenty years in his most recent position alone—working with children and adolescents at school. As he defends the needs of public schools that serve the mass of our children and emphasizes the need for reallocating our society’s resources, his focus is on what money can do inside a school to free the teachers to teach and create space for children to explore.  He doesn’t cover what he doesn’t know—meeting the children’s needs in a school where all the students qualify for free lunch, for example—assembling the resources and expertise for a quality English language program for immigrant children—finding the resources to serve severely disabled students.

Nelson style is fresh and engaging.  He is not ideological despite his strong belief in progressive schooling. He nudges schools and policy makers to move in a progressive direction. And while a lot of books about progressive education are dated, this one is very much up to date—exploring progressive education theory in the context of the destructive pressure of  “corporate reform” accountability.

While the book was written in the last year of so of the Obama Department of Education, it speaks clearly to the problems we are likely face in a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos as education secretary. As the Head of an exclusive New York City private school, Nelson knows precisely why the kind of school choice being promoted by Trump and DeVos won’t work: “The private schools where privileged parents send their kids are expensive and highly selective. I know. I’m the Head of one of them. Calhoun’s tuition is an embarrassing $48,000 per year—about average for Manhattan private schools. Poor families in New York City don’t have the ‘choice’ to attend Calhoun or any of the other private schools. At Calhoun we offer a great deal of tuition assistance so that our students are not all from wealthy families, but the glib come-on in support of privatization is inaccurate and dishonest. Try taking a $5,000 to $7,000 voucher to a place like Sidwell Friends, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Sidwell’s tuition is also about $40.000.” (p. 112-113)

Letter Grades, Assigned by States to School Districts, Tell Us Little about Real Opportunity

Ohio’s release last Friday of school district report cards that rate schools and school districts and assign letter grades for a range of calculations that remain incomprehensible to the general public has set me to thinking about opportunity.  The grades, after all, purport to rank and rate our state’s school districts according to their success or failure in serving all children. School district grades and ratings, however, are almost entirely abstract.  Experience is categorized, assigned numbers that become factors in algorithms, and described as a letter grade for each of a number of categories.

Consider instead what Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA education professor, says about opportunity: “(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.”  (Why School? p. 34) “(T)he creation of opportunity involves a good deal of thoughtful work on the part of the provider, and as well, demands significant effort on the part of the recipient… In this regard, 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? pp. 13-14)

By contrast, the Plain Dealer covers last Friday’s release of school district grades and rankings in the most abstract way—totally removed from any attention to the “experience” of attending school.  The newspaper covers the ratings almost as a sports competition—listing the top 20 school districts in Northeast Ohio and the top 20 school districts in the state.  All of them across the state are exurban, high income, and homogeneously white. They include the wealthiest outer ring suburbs of Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Lorain, Akron, and Youngstown.

Decades’ of research confirm that test scores primarily reflect the aggregate family wealth of a school district’s student population. When the preliminary scores from last spring’s Ohio tests were released in December (Final scores ratings just released last week are from last spring’s testing.), here is how, the Plain Dealer described research from Howard Fleeter, a Columbus school data analyst who has continued to examine the direct correlation of family wealth in Ohio’s communities with the letter  grades the state is assigning to its school districts:  “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase….  Ohio may have changed academic standards and its state tests last school year, but the recurring relationship between test scores and poverty remains the same…. Fleeter has reported the relationship between test scores and family income on an annual basis the last several years…. He repeated that analysis this week using preliminary test scores from the spring on Ohio’s new math, English, science and social studies tests…. As he does each year, Fleeter compared the percentage of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better on state tests in each school district to the percentage of students considered ‘Economically Disadvantaged’….”

Of course there are social and demographic implications when the state assigns letter grades to school districts and the newspaper covers all this as a competition and identifies “top” districts. Describing the danger of using school district test score grades as a guide to evaluating school districts, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein told the Cleveland City Club last February: “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F,’ where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with ‘A’-‘F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A’-‘F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

There are a number of categories in which Ohio’s school districts recently received grades—including one that is little discussed and seems more promising—“Value Added.”  But one indicator, based primarily on cut scores on standardized tests, is more important.  According to the website of the Ohio Department of Education, “The Indicators Met measure shows how many students have a minimum, or proficient, level of knowledge. These indicators are not new to Ohio students or teachers. They are based on a series of up to 35 state tests that measure the percent of students proficient or higher in a grade and subject…. The number of indicators “met” out of the total indicators determines the A-F grade on the report card.”

This year the “Indicators Met” category has more than the usual “F” grades because Ohio used a new PARCC test, which the legislature has now decided to abandon and find a new testing company.  Students’ scores dropped statewide.   Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter, notes that, “Six times fewer Ohio school districts received the top grade in a key measure on the new state report cards than last year…”  In a press release, State Representative Teresa Fedor warns, “Every grade on these report cards is tainted by unverified, arbitrary, poorly designed and implemented tests that have been thrown out by the Ohio legislature.  The flaws are so pervasive that the grades on the Ohio School Report Cards should not be counted for anything.  The state calls it a safe harbor (The state says it will not penalize school districts this year.), which should lead one to question: why are there report cards at all?”   And A.J. Wagner, a member of the state school board, warns: “The tests, and therefore the grades, violate standards of fairness… I urge students, parents, and communities to ignore them.”

Coincidentally, on Saturday, the Plain Dealer published an article that speaks not to the abstract and questionable school district grades but instead to an issue Mike Rose would likely agree is more closely connected to how students across Ohio experience opportunity: “Ohio high school students pay as much as $1,200 to participate in a school-sponsored sport, which critics say prevents students from lower-and middle-class families from signing up. School districts say they need to charge fees to offset growing costs outpacing state funding.”  The legislature is considering prohibiting the fees.

The school district in which I reside serves a high percentage of very poor students and a high percentage of students in the Cuyahoga County foster care system.  It posts a low state grade on “Indicators Met,” and a very high grade in the lesser described state report card category of “Value Added.” And, contrary to the trend by which Ohio school districts are increasing activity participation fees, our school district has paid careful attention to the distribution of opportunity by avoiding what the Plain Dealer on Saturday called “pay-to-play” fees that would prevent our poorest students from playing sports or participating in music programming.

Our family chose to educate our children in a very diverse, mixed-income school district where they would benefit from a heterogeneous group of peers, but in which the school district worked to ensure opportunity for all.  It was this experience we sought for our children who are now adults. I know many families whose children are currently enrolled who are pleased with our school district, whatever the state’s school district grades may say. Of course, in a very unequal society, it is important that all districts work persistently to make the experience of schooling more equitable.  But the state’s rating system doesn’t help in any way I can see.

Opportunity, according to Mike Rose, is “hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.”  The school district grades and rankings tell us nothing about how school districts are expanding concrete pathways for children to experience opportunity.  Pay-to-play fees are just one way that some school districts are blocking those pathways.

Network for Public Education Rates States’ Support for Public Education

On Tuesday afternoon, the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a report that evaluates the states by what is today an unconventional set of standards. States earn points if they have valued school teachers and supported the professionalization of teaching. States earn points for having invested in adequate school funding equitably distributed and for investing in research-proven programs.  And they gain points for reducing poverty and integrating schools racially and economically. The report takes away points from states that have attached high stakes to the federally mandated standardized tests. NPE removes points from states that have privatized schools.

Here is NPE’s description of the principles affirmed in the new report: “NPE values specific policies that will make our public schools vibrant and strong—a well-trained, professional teaching force, adequate and equitable funding wisely spent, and policies that give all students a better opportunity for success, such as integrated schools and low stakes attached to any standardized tests they take. We applaud those states that have resisted the forces of privatization and profiteering that in recent years have been called ‘reforms.'”

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, our society has increasingly evaluated schools by the test score outcomes they are said to “produce”  with lessening attention to measures of opportunity—the resource inputs necessary for ensuring that children have well-prepared teachers, small enough classes for children to be known and supported by an adult, enough funding for competitive salaries, and a rich curriculum including the arts. The report ranks the states by their policies that guarantee the provision of such resource opportunities.

In the section on “professionalization of teaching,” the report confronts policies in some states that view teachers “as interchangeable—experience is discounted, even viewed as a flaw.”  Instead, “Teaching should be a long-term career commitment.  Research shows that experience matters and leads to better student outcomes, including increased learning, better attendance and fewer disciplinary referrals.  Advanced content degrees, especially in mathematics and science, have a positive effect on student learning and good pre-service field experience builds teacher effectiveness, confidence and job satisfaction.”

Money matters, and provides smaller classes and more support staff.  “More spending is positively associated with better learning outcomes,” but, “During the past decade… the gap in spending between rich and poor districts grew by 44 percent.”  The report ranks states by their school funding adequacy and the equitable distribution of resources across school districts.

The report ranks states by their investment in specific programs known to support children, especially those whose needs are greatest: “We believe we must invest tax dollars in the classroom to reduce class size and invest in early childhood education.  Because the relationship between students and teacher is vital, we are also concerned about the growth in online learning and virtual schools.”

The Network for Public Education also rates the states on the degree to which they have adopted what NPE views are the most damaging policies of test-based accountability and privatization.

Standardized tests are made more damaging for students, teachers and schools by the high stakes that are attached:  “Every time high stakes are attached to test scores to determine grade retention, high school graduation, the dismissal of a teacher, or a school closing, there are negative consequences for students.  In NPE’s rating system, the states that lose the most points are the states that have attached the most high-stakes consequences to their testing.

In her introduction to the report NPE founder and president, Diane Ravitch declares NPE’s commitment to public education as a “pillar of our democratic society”: “We believe that public schools can serve all students well, inspire their intrinsic motivation, and prepare them to make responsible choices for themselves and for our society.  Public education creates citizens.  Its doors are open to all, regardless of their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or disability status… Educating all children is a civic responsibility, not a consumer good.  Sustaining a public education system of high quality is a job for the entire community, whether or not they have children in public schools….” States gain points if they have invested in strengthening public schools. States lose points if they have privatized public education with vouchers, charters, or parent trigger laws that, “take the governance of schools out of the hands of democratically elected officials and the local communities they serve, and place it in the hands of a few individuals—often elites or corporations with no connections to the community.”

I think NPE’s greatest contribution is in its definition of the principles by which the new report suggests we evaluate schools—by identifying the factors that expand opportunity and by showing which states have instead moved toward test-based accountability and privatization.  The report is more interesting than the letter grades it assigns.

My only quarrel with the report is in its final category that evaluates states on their chance for success depending on the amount of family poverty in each state and the degree of racial integration in each state.  Today’s policy makers are not responsible for the basic demographics they have inherited in their states.  What they can control are the policies they enact to ameliorate poverty and reduce segregation by race and economics.  The report would be stronger if this category focused on specific policies some of the states have enacted—efforts to ensure affordable housing, policies to increase the minimum wage, laws to outlaw just-in-time employment scheduling.  And despite current U.S. Supreme Court decisions that severely reduce permissible remedies for racial segregation, some states have developed innovative plans, for example, Hartford, Connecticut’s magnet schools.  The report would be stronger if it awarded points for the practical and innovative efforts some states have made.