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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educational Redlining: GreatSchools Ratings Drive Housing Segregation

Back in 2015, Heights Community Congress (HCC) in Cleveland Heights, Ohio raised serious concerns (here and here) about the impact of online GreatSchools ratings of public schools. The GreatSchools ratings were, in 2015, being used in online real estate advertising by listing services like Zillow.  The practice continues.

HCC, founded in 1972, is Greater Cleveland, Ohio’s oldest fair housing enforcement organization. For over four decades HCC has been conducting audits of the real estate industry to expose and discourage racial steering and disparate treatment of African American and white home seekers. During 2015 and 2016, the fair housing committee of HCC held community meetings to demonstrate that such ads and ratings of public schools are steering home buyers to whiter and wealthier communities and redlining racially and economically diverse and majority black and Hispanic communities.

Last month, Chalkbeat published an in-depth examination of similar concerns on a national scale: “Arguably the most visible and influential school rating system in America comes from the nonprofit GreatSchools, whose 1-10 ratings appear in home listings on national real estate websites Zillow, Realtor.com, and Redfin.  Forty-three million people visited GreatSchools’ site in 2018…. Zillow and its affiliated sites count more than 150 million unique visitors per month.”

Chalkbeat reports that GreatSchools has calculated its ratings for schools using the annual standardized test scores mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a requirement maintained in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB in 2015.  Because the ratings were criticized for relying too much on one standardized test score, in 2017, GreatSchools revised its algorithm for rating schools by including a factor to reflect the rate of growth in each school’s student test scores over time.

But Chalkbeat reports that the overall bias still condemns schools in the poorest communities: “When the organization overhauled its ratings in 2017, it included a host of new metrics. A GreatSchools representative said at the time that the new ratings would ‘more accurately reflect what’s going on in a school besides just its demographics.’  It was a striking acknowledgement of the flaws in the prior system… Two years into this new system, Chalkbeat took a closer look.  We examined the ratings of elementary and middle schools in Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, New York City, Phoenix, and San Francisco, combined with several of each city’s suburbs.  The results are striking. On average, the more black and Hispanic students a school enrolled, and the more low-income students it served, the lower its rating. The average 1-10 GreatSchools rating for schools with the most low-income and most black and Hispanic students is 4 to 6 points lower than the average score for schools with the fewest black and Hispanic students and fewest low-income students. In most places, only a tiny fraction of schools with the most low-income and most black and Hispanic students score a 7 or better, the number that earns an ‘above average’ label from GreatSchools.”

In December, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) reported on a Newsday report from Long Island: “The newspaper found that realtors repeatedly steered White buyers away from school districts enrolling higher percentages of minority residents, typically using veiled language. For example, they told white buyers that one community was an area to avoid ‘school district-wise’ or ‘based on statistics.'” And the housing values increased more rapidly in school districts with high GreatSchools ratings.

NEPC explains that Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University followed up on the NewsDay report.  Wells and her colleagues discovered that a one percent increase in Black/Hispanic enrollment corresponded with a 0.3 percent decrease in home values. In other words, a home worth $415,000 at the time of the study in 2010 would cost $50,000 more in a 30 percent Hispanic/Black district as compared to a 70 percent Hispanic/Black district.”  Wells and her colleagues examined and compared the schools themselves: “There didn’t seem to be a huge difference at all in the curriculum and the quality of the teachers… So they (real estate agents) do play an important role in steering people away from certain districts that are becoming more racially, ethnically diverse and less White, in particular.”

For over half a century, research has confirmed that standardized test scores are a poor measure of the quality of a public school. Instead aggregate standardized test scores are highly correlated with family and neighborhood income. Children educated in pockets of privilege regularly post high scores, while children in schools where poverty is concentrated post the lowest scores. Here are three examples of this research, two by academic experts and the third a recent correlation study by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

For a decade now, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon has been studying the correlation of achievement gaps measured by standardized tests with economic and racial segregation. He has documented that standardized tests measure all of the inside- and outside-of-school factors in a child’s life. Children who live in pockets of wealth bring their privilege with them when they take standardized tests.  In a massive new study published last fall, Is Separate Still Unequal, Reardon explains: “The association of racial segregation with achievement gaps is completely accounted for by racial differences in school poverty.” “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… Differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

Harvard University’s testing expert, Daniel Koretz, emphasizes that while children living in concentrated poverty take longer to catch up to their more privileged peers, our testing regime fails to consider the needs of children who start school farther behind: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

And finally, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner created a series of bar graphs when the Ohio state school district report cards were released last September. Exner demonstrates the correlation of the letter grades awarded to school districts by the state’s school rating system (letter grades based primarily on aggregate student’ standardized test scores) with the family income of the children in each school district.  School districts earning “A” ratings boasted median family income of $95,432, while the school districts rated “F” serve families whose median family income is $32,658.  The state of Ohio itself in its annual school report cards seems to be joining GreatSchools and Zillow to steer families to the affluent, white, exurbs surrounding our cities. These are the districts which regularly earn “A” grades on the state report card and the highest ratings from GreatSchools and Zillow.

It is alarming to see our society stepping back so completely from concerns about steering, disparate treatment, and redlining in the real estate market. These are the very issues the 1968 Fair Housing Act was intended to address.  The National Education Policy Center declares: “Realtors and real estate websites alike share assessments that downgrade schools that serve higher percentages of low-income and minority students, while also serving to maintain segregated housing patterns by steering Whites away from districts that serve students of color.”

State School District Ratings and Report Cards: Educational Redlining and Steering?

In his recent book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein shows how explicit government policies following WWII—Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, low-interest Veterans Administration home mortgages, government sanctioned insurance-writing policies, and others—have caused the racial segregation of America’s cities and suburbs. What we have called de facto segregation—segregation that just happened somehow—was really driven by explicit policies written or sanctioned by the government.

As I think today about states’ rankings and ratings of school districts and specific schools within districts, Rothstein’s book comes to mind. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (which replaced No Child Left Behind) requires labeling of schools. Congress has said that states must test students every year and then—based on the test scores and graduation rates and at least one other factor the federal government and states choose to use—rate schools. Congress says the purpose of this exercise is to help parents know about the quality of their children’s schools.

Some states like Ohio go further.  They aggregate all the indicators into an overall grade, what is known as a summative rating.  Some states classify schools into categories—Excellent-Good-Failing; others award  “A”-“F” grades on a school district report card. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act does not require summative ratings; it merely says states must create a way to tell parents about the quality of schools—based on test scores, graduation rates, and one or more other characteristics states choose to use.

Ohio has chosen to use summative letter grades for school districts—“A” through “F.” A couple of years ago, I began really to think through the implications of Ohio’s school district report cards when I was invited to a forum on education sponsored by our local fair housing agency, Heights Community Congress (HCC), which has been working since the 1970s to prevent block busting, disparate treatment and steering under the Fair Housing Law.  Fair housing advocates at HCC had become very concerned about the school ratings published online by real estate listing companies like Zillow and Trulia.  Aren’t these companies really engaging in steering? Aren’t they, in fact, pushing families to choose to look at real estate listings in school districts where the schools get an “A” and to avoid the communities where the schools get a “C” or an “F”?  Isn’t what is happening really a sort of educational redlining?

What struck me as I sat at HCC’s forum—even before I read Richard Rothstein’s book about government sponsored segregation—was this fact: The school ratings published by companies like Zillow and Trulia are not calculated by educational experts and statisticians hired by Zillow and Trulia. These companies are simply using the data gathered under the federal education law and used by our state government, by federal requirement, to rate the schools in each community. The companies are merely publishing the state’s ratings. Isn’t government complicit in educational redlining? Isn’t the state of Ohio itself complicit, by ranking schools, in steering real estate buyers to what test scores tell us are desirable school districts?

Here are some educational implications from experts that put the topic of educational redlining in some perspective. You have previously seen this information in this blog, but I’ll quote it again because it is so important.

First there was Sean Reardon’s 2011 report on growing residential segregation by income—which correlates tightly with segregation by race.  Reardon used a massive data set to document the consequences of widening economic inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed 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 that along with growing residential inequality and residential segregation by income 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.

Second there is Daniel Koretz, in his urgently important 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, explaining how the test scores that are so central to states’ school ratings don’t really measure the quality of the schools but instead reflect the aggregate economic level of a school’s families and neighborhood:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Currently the Ohio Legislature and the State Board of Education are re-evaluating Ohio’s school district report cards.  I’m personally delighted to see politicians looking at problems in the report cards, and especially pleased that some critics of our current report cards are looking more deeply at the injustices in this rating system and not merely trying to manipulate the algorithms used in the calculations.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports on a bill  introduced in the Ohio House by Rep. Mike Duffey for the purpose of revising the state report cards. Duffey does worry about how the formulas work in the current report cards: “Gap Closing” and “K-3 Literacy” “are either counter-intuitive or just too hard for parents to understand.”  And Duffey believes student growth should “matter more,” but thinks “educators don’t trust how ‘value -added,’ Ohio’s main growth measure, is calculated.”

More important, however: Duffey is discerning about the systemic injustice in the current system: “(R)eport card ratings almost always make poor districts look bad, compared to affluent ones… A-F grades lead to a punitive approach to schools and should be dropped.”  Yes, Yes, Yes!

O’Donnell adds: “His bill would create a new report card with no A-F grades because they ‘produce a particularly visceral emotional response from parents,’ Duffey said, that can doom tax votes for schools, even when a school is doing well. ‘Sometimes an F is representative just of the demographics of the district….'” “‘We should move away from the winners and losers approach to the report card,’ Duffey told the education committee last week.”

Duffey would like Ohio’s school report cards “also (to) highlight special course offerings or extracurricular activities schools offer.”  He is making the radical proposal that in Ohio, the state could possibly give school districts high marks for a fine music program, a great high school newspaper, a robotics team, or an effort to replace punitive school discipline with conflict mediation and restorative justice. He is absolutely correct that parents would like to learn about such special offerings.

I have a personal bias in all this, of course.  I live in an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, a community where our family chose to educate our children. It is a mixed income community where black and white children go to school together.  I am so tired of reading about all of the white, affluent suburbs in the outer-ring whose schools, according to the state, “earn” an “A” rating, while high quality schools in the communities around mine get low grades from the state.

Representative Duffey is right that low grades on the state report card make it hard to pass the school levies. What is worse, however, is that the state has been condemning poorer and racially diverse communities with a system of educational redlining. Although this sort of thing has not yet been made explicitly illegal by any current law, fair housing advocates at Heights Community Congress would understand the state school report cards as a form of explicit steering.

“Something Is Happening and You Don’t Know What It Is…”

After reading John Merrow’s reflection on what is happening in the Trump-DeVos Department of Education, I woke up in the night thinking of Bob Dylan. John Merrow covered education for the PBS NewsHour for decades, and he just visited Washington, D.C., where he talked with old friends and contacts who see significant developments at the U.S. Department of Education.

Merrow describes the movement of education policy in the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration, but he is definitely not depicting a new spirit or a gathering momentum. This is definitely not a “the times, they are a-changin” moment.

I will, however, give Bob Dylan credit for naming what I think John Merrow has noticed: “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”

Here is John Merrow: “In his inaugural address, President Trump told the nation that we have an ‘education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.’ His proposed budget acts on his words, cutting federal education dollars by 13.5% or nearly $9 billion. His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called public education a disgrace and a disaster. Openly hostile to traditional public schools (which serve 90% of children) she plans to use the levers of power available to her to support vouchers, home schooling, on-line for-profit charter schools, and other alternatives… However, it’s also chaotic, because Trump’s White House does not trust any of the Cabinet departments and has installed ‘spies’ in all of them, including Education. These Trump loyalists, often called ‘Special Assistants to the Secretary,’ report to the White House, not to the Secretary of the department they’re assigned to. So things have to be beyond weird at 400 Maryland Avenue SW, the home of the Department of Education… I just came from Washington, where some Republicans and Democrats told me that ‘Lamar Alexander is really in charge.’… They seemed to be expressing the hope that Senator Alexander could and would rein in DeVos if she really got crazy. So, it’s bad, but it would be worse if Trump’s anti-public school people had their act together, which they do not.”

In all this John Merrow is able to derive some optimism: “Congress, which finally got out from under the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has now revoked regulations issued in the dying days of the Obama Administration.  That gives even more power back to states and districts, who must still file their ESSA accountability plans with the Department…. even though it’s not clear that anyone at the Department will read them, let alone approve them. Trump’s budget cuts federal dollars that have been supporting State Departments of Education, so it’s reasonable to infer that state officials are spending lots of time and energy trying to restore those budget cuts… So, with Washington engaged in in-fighting, and State Departments fighting to keep their feet firmly in the federal trough, who’s paying attention to local school districts?  Could this be a real opportunity for genuine local control?”

I wonder what gives John Merrow quite so much optimism about local control.  Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, there has definitely been a gross imbalance toward federal power, of course, with the test-and-punish strictures of the federal government conditioning the evaluations of school teachers and even the survival of particular schools on schools’ capacity to raise the test scores quickly. Federal law has demanded accountability even though the federal government itself entirely failed to build the capacity of the schools that have struggled.  Congress neglected to demand that funding between rich and poor school districts be equalized and failed as well to address the conditions that concentrated poverty imposes on the schools in our poorest communities.

Restoring some federal-state-local balance would be a very good thing. But it is wrong to imagine that if the federal role fades, school improvement will automatically evolve. The prophetic warning of the late Frederick Douglass should staunch our optimism:“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

If the federal government’s role in education policy dissipates into incompetence and in-fighting, other influential factions across the states and within local school districts are still likely to manage public schools in ways that further privilege the children of the powerful unless democratic pressure persists.

Here are merely two examples of how privileged interests are driving school policy.

The first example is  at the local level.  On Wednesday, the NY Times published a column by Damon Hewitt, now the director of the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and formerly with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Hewitt protests the injustice of the way New York City selects the students for its  “eight ‘specialized’ city public high schools that include Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. About 28,000 students took the multiple-choice test required for admission, and 5,078 did well enough to secure a place. This system, while it might seem meritocratic, in fact leads to a shocking inequity. Even though black and Latino students make up nearly 70 percent of public high school students in the city, they routinely represent only 10 percent of those offered admission to the specialized high schools. This year the city offered admission to only 524 black and Latino students. The numbers are even lower at some of the most desired schools, such as Stuyvesant, which has space for nearly 1,000 freshmen and offered admission to only 13 black students… The sole criterion is a student’s score on the multiple-choice admissions test.”

Everybody knows, or should know, that test scores, in the aggregate, reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.) In New York City, parents influential enough to do so scramble in Kindergarten and at the middle school transition to get their children into schools that are thought to prepare students for admission to the elite high schools.  And in New York City everybody knows that students whose parents can afford it are tutored for the admissions test for the elite high schools.  Hewitt concludes: “If the (DeBlasio) administration is truly committed to admitting black and Latino students who deserve to be in specialized high schools, it must find the courage to disrupt the status quo and ask the harder questions… What if the school district… and the State Legislature… started from scratch to create an admissions process that rewards those who do well in middle school?  What if school officials and the public actually believed there are many talented black and Latino students who can succeed in an elite setting?”

The second example is the state-by-state policy promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education: the creation of state report cards that award letter grades based on standardized test scores to school districts and individual schools.  Some had pushed that the federal rules for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act require states to create summative ratings (like A-F school grades) for schools and districts in their state ESSA accountability plans.  Even though the Obama ESSA accountability rules were just scrapped by the new Congress, Education Week recently reported that at least 18 states have or are developing some form of A-F grading system for their schools: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.  Because, in the aggregate, test scores are highly correlated with family income and the overall economic level of neighborhoods where children live (See here and here.), such letter grades are currently branding and stigmatizing the schools in poorer communities with lower grades—ratings that are widely advertised on real estate websites like Zillow and Trulia.  The assignment of letter grades to schools is condemning schools and school districts in the poorest rural areas, and redlining school districts in big cities and inner ring suburbs. In metropolitan areas the school district grades—legitimized because they are created by state governments themselves—are incentivizing parents to choose the so-called “excellent” school districts in wealthy outer suburbs whose schools are A-rated. Across cities and their suburbs, the letter grades are driving residential segregation by both family income and race.

John Merrow has called our attention to the reality that in federal education policy, something is happening but we don’t quite know what it is. We can be sure of one thing, however.  A vacuum of power—even if it happens due to federal in-fighting or incompetence—is likely to serve the children of the powerful and not children who have historically been left out or left behind. For those of us who care about justice in public schools, it will be essential to figure out exactly what is happening and then to press hard for policies that expand opportunity for the poorest students and children who have long been marginalized by their race or ethnicity.

Ohio’s 2015 School District Report Cards Encourage Economic Segregation

What does it mean when somebody gives you a bad grade for who you are?  That is exactly what the new school district report cards in Ohio do.  School achievement tends to correlate with aggregate family income, and metropolitan areas across the nation are quickly resegregating by income.  Research shows there are fewer and fewer mixed income communities and more very poor and very rich ones.  Ohio gives the schools in very rich communities “A” grades; and Ohio gives schools in very poor and in mixed income communities “Ds”and “Fs.”

In his fascinating book, Our Kids, that tracks the impact of growing income inequality on children, Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam poses this question: “Do schools in America today tend to widen the growing gaps between have and have-not kids, do they reduce those gaps, or do they have little effect either way?” (p. 160) Putnam answers his own question by reporting ground breaking research studies released five years ago by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… He summarizes his key finding succinctly: ‘The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30-40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five year earlier.’ … Strikingly, Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (pp. 160-162)

The Ohio Department of Education released school district report cards and school district summative letter grades—“A-F”—last Thursday based on standardized test scores from 2015. The Plain Dealer reports that among the 20 “A” graded school districts, 8 are white, affluent suburbs of Cleveland; 4 are white, affluent suburbs of Cincinnati; 2 are white, affluent suburbs of Akron; one is a white, affluent suburb of Toledo; and one is a white, affluent suburb of Dayton. Another of these A-rated school districts is Granville, a small town that houses Denison University and that boasted a median family income of $102,885 according to the census in 2000. At that time, according to the census, there were in Granville no children under the age of 18 living below the federal poverty line.

It is not a positive thing that poverty, and institutional and structural racism, and growing residential segregation by income overlaid on segregation by race pose serious challenges for children. But poverty is not a disability. Examples abound of low-income children who excel at school. Aggregate test scores, however, show what sociological research has been documenting for a long time: In the aggregate, school districts that serve concentrations of children in poverty are likely to post lower overall test scores.

The logical question to ask is how better to help such school districts support their students and the teachers who serve them. Since 2001, however, the United States has instead adopted a policy that seeks to motivate staff in those districts to try harder by shaming and punishing them.  Federal policy even provided recommended sanctions—close the school, reconstitute the school, restart the school by turning it into a charter school, rate and rank teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. In the same punitive style, Ohio and other states that have copied the Jeb Bush plan from Florida, now award letter grades on school district report cards based on aggregate test scores. There is wide agreement that these sanctions have not improved student achievement.

Last April, Stanford News summarized new, preliminary research by sociologist Sean Reardon—newer data than what caught Robert Putnam’s attention last year when he published Our Kids.  In the new research, Reardon evaluated a massive new data set —of 200 million test scores—“reading and math test results of some 40 million 3rd to 8th grade students during 2009-13 in every public school district in the country…”

Here are some of the findings, which Reardon explains, document the widespread persistence of both economic and racial achievement gaps: “The socioeconomic profile of a district is a powerful predictor of the average test score performance of students in that district.”  “The most and least socioeconomically advantaged districts have average performance levels more than four grade levels apart.  Average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one-and-a-half grade levels.  Achievement gaps are larger in districts where black and Hispanic students attend higher poverty schools than their white peers, where parents on average have high levels of educational attainment; and where large racial/ethnic gaps exist in parents’ educational attainment.  The size of the gaps has little or no association with average class size, a district’s per capita student spending or charter school enrollment.”

Stanford News emphasizes that Reardon’s new research remains preliminary: “The researchers stress that their findings do not prove cause and effect, though they do point to promising areas for further study.”

Ohio’s policy of awarding school district grades based on students’ aggregate test scores amounts to educational redlining—castigating mixed-income and poorer communities and urging  parents who can find the means to abandon districts with lower grades and find a way to move to “A” rated schools. Ohio’s school district grades clearly promote economic and racial segregation in the state’s metropolitan areas.

School districts are responsible for educating and improving the lives of the children who live in their communities.  In Ohio, the state’s confusing rating system—this year based on a new and harder test which forced scores down across the state—does a poor job of evaluating what particular schools are doing to ensure their students learn. The grades elevate some school districts and castigate others without identifying or showcasing promising educational practices.

If one views Ohio’s “A-F” school grades through the lens of  sociological research, it’s perfectly clear that the state is  encouraging the public to believe that homogeneous, wealthy communities are the best place to live and raise children. There are lots of reasons to challenge such an assumption, but we rarely question it.

Educational Redlining: How Zillow’s School Ratings Help Segregate Communities

Heights Community Congress has just released Educational Redlining: How Zillow and GreatSchools Profit from Suspect School Ratings and Harm Communities,  a report on the practice by Zillow, the real estate website, and GreatSchools to guide home buyers to choose communities according to color-coded school ratings posted online. Heights Community Congress (HCC), founded in 1972, is Greater Cleveland, Ohio’s oldest fair housing enforcement organization.  For over four decades HCC has been conducting audits of the real estate industry to expose and discourage racial steering and disparate treatment of African American and white home seekers.  This blog covered HCC’s preliminary work on educational redlining here.

Ralph Day, author of HCC’s report, explains that GreatSchools, launched by the venture capital group, NewSchools Venture Fund, “arbitrarily divides schools into three categories—green, yellow, and red.”  In most states GreatSchools’ ratings merely represent the aggregate standardized test scores of each school’s students.  Day continues: “The act of coloring red whole communities of schools is an alarming reminder of mortgage redlining of recent past, which was declared illegal with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that many home seekers automatically exclude whole communities with ‘red’ labeled schools from their search.  And Zillow in its book (Zillow Talk) exacerbates this trend by cheerfully steering home buyers into the highest rated (highest income) GreatSchools areas they can afford.”

Day summarizes GreatSchools’ methodology:  “In most states, GreatSchools rates schools on their standardized test scores alone.  Schools of the same grade levels are ordered within their state from high scores to low.  Then a school’s rank is converted to a number 1 through 10, where 10 means the school is in the top 10 percent, 1 the lowest 10 percent, 5 and 6 about in the middle, and so on.”  Day continues: “In the past, mortgage redlining was practiced to systematically withhold financing from certain communities that lenders chose for disinvestment… Educational redlining recycles this pernicious idea by taking aim at schools, and discouraging home buyers from purchasing homes in moderate income communities.  Because school test scores have repeatedly been shown to highly correlate with a community’s socio-economic status, and GreatSchools ratings draw heavily on test scores, the effect of coloring certain schools red is to disinvest in moderate income communities by discouraging home buyers… This ignores the obvious, that many dimensions contribute to school quality, and… metrics can only begin to describe it.”  And, according to Day, “GreatSchools makes money by licensing its ratings to third parties like Zillow. It also apparently makes money by linking its viewers to Zillow.”

What do the ratings miss?  “GreatSchools’ ratings are simplistic.  They are almost useless for determining a school’s overall quality or its suitability for a particular child.  They do not begin to capture a school’s activities and specializations that matter to children and parents.  Furthermore, by focusing only on the average score, GreatSchools obscures the fact that a group of students may be doing very well, another group may be greatly improving (high value added), or that students in a specialized subject area are quite strong.”

Zillow’s invitation to home seekers that they look to buy in a school district with a “green” rating and avoid schools rated “red” surely exacerbates growing residential segregation by income across America’s metropolitan areas, a trend documented by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon.  Reardon has shown that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.

Heights Community Congress declares: “HCC realizes that the best defense against misinformation is an educated public… HCC believes that GreatSchools, its supporting foundations, and Zillow have a civic responsibility to refrain from actions that harm communities… GreatSchools must abandon the use of red, yellow, green colors… Zillow must clearly disclose how the ratings are calculated and what they mean… Zillow must state that there is no such thing as a single measure of school quality… Zillow must stop making judgments about school systems and drawing comparisons among school districts, actions that are inappropriate for a real estate business with no experience or expertise in education.”

In a speech at the Cleveland City Club last February, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute explained how—because test scores reflect primarily the aggregate economic level of the families in a community—rating and ranking schools drives segregation by income.  Rothstein speaks of the “A” through “F” letter grades that are frequently these days assigned to schools as they are rated and compared.  The “A” through “F” school “grades” function similarly to the red, yellow and green rankings used by GreatSchools and Zillow: “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.”

I urge you to read and consider HCC’s new report on educational redlining. Think about the report in the context of demographic trends you can observe across a metropolitan area with which you are familiar.

Educational Redlining

Heights Community Congress (HCC), founded in 1972, is Greater Cleveland, Ohio’s oldest fair housing enforcement organization.  For over four decades HCC has been conducting audits of the real estate industry to expose and discourage racial steering and disparate treatment of African American and white home seekers.  Each September, HCC organizes a home and garden tour as its annual fund raiser.  Inside this year’s guide to the 38th Annual Heights Heritage Tour is a page that braids together issues of justice through fair housing and diverse public schools.

HCC explains: “Real estate websites like Zillow.com are popular places to check out homes for sale.  Zillow.com even provides a color-coded rating of nearby schools with every home it lists… Heights Community Congress took a deeper look at this practice and found that the ratings are provided to Zillow by a website called GreatSchools.com.  HCC is concerned that the GreatSchools/Zillow partnership unfairly discourages home buying in moderate income communities like Cleveland Heights and University Heights.”

The piece in HCC’s tour book continues: “The ratings are based on test scores which research consistently shows correlate highly with students’ socioeconomic status rather than reliably measuring school ‘quality.’  They give a quick comparison of schools with a single simple metric, labeling schools with an emotionally laden color—red, green, or yellow.  Zillow.com fails to disclose how the ratings are derived or warn of their limitations.  The ratings virtually guarantee that schools in moderate income communities will rank below those in more affluent communities.”

According to HCC’s report, GreatSchools was launched with funding from the NewSchools Venture Fund, “a California venture capital firm that invests in charter and online schools and markets educational technology.”  “GreatSchools licenses its ratings to Zillow and earns revenue each time a viewer links to Zillow.com…  HCC contacted the president and the director of data of GreatSchools by registered, certified letter, asking about their metrics and requesting a response to our questions.  We first received an automated response and, after a second query, answers that were not complete…”

HCC warns: “Mortgage redlining was declared illegal with the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  Educational redlining recycles this pernicious idea by taking aim at schools, and thus encourages disinvestment in moderate income communities by steering home buyers away.”

HCC’s 38th Heights Heritage Tour Book is not posted online, but the organization’s website directs those who seek information about educational redlining to this presentation.