Politicians Forget that Cut Scores on Standardized Tests Are Not Grounded in Science

Last week the NY TimesDana Goldstein and Manny Fernandez reported on a political fight in Texas over the scoring of the STAAR—the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness—the state’s version of the achievement test each state must still administer every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind, still mandates annual testing, although Congress no longer imposes its own high stakes punishments for failure.

However, Congress still does require the states to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education declaring what will be the consequences for low-scoring schools.  Goldstein and Fernandez explain that Texas, like many other states, still imposes punishments for the low scorers instead of offering help: “The test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, can have profound consequences not just for students but for schools across the state, hundreds of which have been deemed inadequate and are subject to interventions that critics say are undue.”  Schools have to provide help for students who are not on grade level. Also: “Texas grades its districts on an A through F scale, in part based on how many students are meeting or exceeding grade-level standards… Persistently failing schools, and districts with just a single such school, can be shut down or taken over by the state—a threat facing the state’s largest school system, in Houston.”

Decades of research show that, in the aggregate, standardized test scores correlate with family and neighborhood income. In a country where segregation by race and poverty continues to grow, it is now recognized among experts and researchers that rating and ranking schools and districts by their aggregate test scores merely brands the poorest schools as failing. When sanctions are attached, political regimes of test-based accountability merely punish the schools and the teachers and the students in the poorest places.

In an excellent 2017, book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explains the correlation of aggregate standardized test scores with family and community economics: “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)

Goldstein and Fernandez report that the political fight in Texas this month is about the test scores in third grade reading: “The 2018 STAAR tests found that 58 percent of Texas third graders are not reading at grade level. On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to a sample of fourth graders across the country, 72 percent of Texas students were not proficient in reading—a fact the state has cited as evidence that tough local standards are warranted.”

Like many other states, Texas blames the public schools.  But Goldstein and Fernandez present other factors that ought to be considered here: “More than half of the state’s public school students are Hispanic and nearly 60 percent come from low-income families.  About a fifth are still learning English.”  The state argues that’s all the more reason to set the passing cut score high and motivate schools to catch kids up quicker.

But educators and parents and some politicians in Texas are pushing back. They contend that the bar is set so high that students who are reading at grade level still score below the cut score for proficiency.  There is a lot of discussion of reading passages said to be two grade levels ahead of the students being tested and of something called Lexile measures, which involve the number of syllables in a word and are used to evaluate the difficulty of the passages on the test.

It would clear up a lot of the trouble if more people read Chapter 8, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets,” in Daniel Koretz’s book. Koretz explains that there is nothing really scientific about where “proficient” cut scores are set: “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, pl 120)

Koretz explains that standardized test cut scores are not set scientifically. There is no scientific or even magical way of deciding exactly which reading passages every third grader must be able to decode and comprehend, and anyway, students in third grade are not consistent.  Koretz examines several methods used by panels of judges to set the “proficient” level.  He adds that the methods used by different state panels don’t arrive at the same cut scores: “The percentage of kids deemed to be ‘proficient’ sometimes varies dramatically from one method to another.” (The Testing Charade, p. 124)

Goldstein and Fernandez indicate that Texas uses the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as its audit test by which it judges the accuracy of the way Texas sets its levels of proficiency. When the scores on the STAAR are compared to the scores on the NAEP, politicians in Texas are really concerned because NAEP shows that 72 percent of third graders in Texas are not proficient—even worse than the 58 percent who score below proficient on the STAAR.

But the matter is not as dire as it would appear. The education historian Diane Ravitch served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years.  Ravitch explains that the cut scores on the NAEP are set artificially high.  It is much harder to reach the proficient level than what our common understanding of the term “proficient” would lead us to expect: “‘Proficient’ on NAEP does not indicate ‘average’ performance; it is set very high… There are four levels. At the top is ‘advanced.’ Then comes ‘proficient.’ Then ‘basic.’ And last, ‘below basic.’  Advanced is truly superb performance, which is like getting an A+. Among fourth graders, 8% were advanced readers in 2011; 3% of eighth graders were advanced. In reading, these numbers have changed little in the past twenty years…   Proficient is akin to a solid A. In reading, the proportion who were proficient in fourth grade reading rose from 29% in 1992 to 34% in 2011. The proportion proficient in eighth grade also rose from 29% to 34% in those years… Basic is akin to a B or C level performance. Good but not good enough.”

The argument about what different “proficient” levels really mean is old and tired, but we can’t seem to move beyond it. Today we know that the No Child Left Behind Act was aspirational. It 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 in American public schools 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.”

As we continue to haggle about the cut scores by which we judge our children and their schools, however, there is one thing we almost never consider.  What if—instead of punishing the schools where scores are lower and instead of making their children drill harder and attend Saturday cram sessions—we were willing to invest more tax dollars in the lowest scoring schools?  What if we made classes smaller to make it possible for teachers to work more personally with each student?  What if we made sure that the schools in our poorest communities had well stocked libraries with certified librarians and story-hours once or even twice a week?

Koretz comes to this same conclusion, although he explains it more theoretically: “(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)

The Difficulty of Cleaning Arne Duncan’s Awful Policies Out of the Laws of 50 States

Sometimes I find myself considering how our society arrived in 2019 at what striking schoolteachers this year have been demonstrating is an existential crisis for our system of public education.

Partly, of course, Betsy DeVos, our current Education Secretary, and all her friends including the Koch brothers have been working for years to substitute privatized, marketplace school choice for what many of us prize as our universal system of public schools. The idea of public education is a network of schools in every American community, schools that are publicly owned, regulated by law, and operated by locally elected school boards. Our society’s promise, an ideal we have increasingly realized through a history of making the dream accessible to more and more children, is that the public schools will meet all children’s needs and protect their rights.  Supreme Court cases and civil rights laws have expanded protection for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds, no matter their immigration status. The law protects services for children whose primary language may be other than English, for children who are disabled, and for children whatever their gender or sexual orientation.

But even with all her money, added to the money of her friends, and with the help of billionaire philanthropists who have served as her allies, Betsy DeVos isn’t powerful enough to have so thoroughly upended public education. We were all complicit somehow, although we didn’t collectively realize it, despite that many of us have been protesting along the way.

Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”  In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.

More recently, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have described how such conventional wisdom can somehow become acceptable despite plenty of contradictory evidence. Writing about the emergence of a bipartisan consensus about taxation and the role of government beginning in the Reagan era and continuing today, they write: “These changes did not go unnoticed or occur without pushback. Yet those who sought to defend or resurrect the ideas under siege found themselves caught in what communications experts call a ‘spiral of silence.’ In such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance. Even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent. In time, this anticipation can create self-fulfilling cycles—a ‘spiral’—in which conflicting ideas are pushed to the periphery. When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power.” (American Amnesia, p. 198)

Over the past quarter century, test-based school accountability and school privatization have quietly become fixtures of the bipartisan conventional wisdom about education. This year, striking public school teachers across the states have challenged the conventional wisdom by reinforcing, to use Hacker and Pierson’s words, “alternative understandings which have no longer been voiced confidently” to demand that we value the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

No Child Left Behind, the 2002, omnibus federal education law, set up a scheme to judge schools by standardized test scores and punish low-scoring public schools until they improved their students’ scores. The scheme pretty much ignored resource inputs like equitable distribution of school funding, and it also ignored what has since then been repeatedly reconfirmed: that test scores are extremely highly correlated with children’s circumstances at home and in their neighborhoods. Concentrated poverty and segregation are central factors that the conventional wisdom glossed over.

This year striking schoolteachers have, for many of us at least, created a new receptivity to the facts.  Teachers have created a new context in which Nathan Robinson’s recent analysis in Current Affairs resonates in a new way.  This blog covered Robinson’s piece last week, but it is worth considering again.  Robinson specifically dissects Race to the Top, Arne Duncan’s plan, embodied in the 2009 federal economic stimulus, but Race to the Top merely magnified and intensified the strategy and specific details of No Child Left Behind, except that Race to the Top added another business strategy: competition.

Robinson explains that Race to the Top “gave $4.3 billion in funding to U.S. schools through a novel mechanism: Instead of giving out the aid based on how much a state’s schools needed it, the Department of Education awarded it through a competition.  Applications ‘were graded on a 500-point scale according to the rigor of the reforms proposed and their compatibility with four administration priorities: developing common standards and assessments; improving teacher training, evaluation, and retention policies; creating better data systems; and adopting preferred school-turnaround strategies.'”  The four turnarounds (originally defined in No Child Left Behind) were firing principals and teachers in so-called “failing” schools, closing these schools, or turning them into privately operated charter schools, or turning them over to an education management organization.

Looking back, Robinson wonders how our people permitted this to happen: “There is something deeply objectionable about nearly every part of Race to the Top.  First, the very idea of having states scramble to compete for federal funds means that children are given additional support based on how good their state legislatures are at pleasing the president, rather than how much those children need support.  Michigan got no Race to the Top money, and Detroit’s schools didn’t see a penny of this $4.3 billion, because it didn’t win the ‘race.’  This ‘fight to the death’ approach (come to think of it, a better name for the program) was novel, since ‘historically, most federal education funds have been distributed through categorical grant programs that allocate money to districts on the basis of need-based formulas.’… Once upon a time, liberals talking about how to fix schools would talk about making sure all teachers had the resources they need to give students a quality education.  Now, they were importing the competitive capitalist model into government: Show results or find yourself financially starved. The focus on ‘innovation,’ data, and technology is misguided, too.  Innovation is not necessarily improvement… When it came time, in 2016, to assess what Race to the Top had actually managed to accomplish, the administration conceded that ‘a vast literature examining the effectiveness of the types of policies promoted by Race to the Top provides no conclusive evidence on whether they improve student outcomes’….”

In one way, however, Arne Duncan was an extremely savvy politician. His Race to the Top competition magnified the test-and-punish policies of No Child Left Behind in 50 different ways and set them in concrete by bribing the 50 state legislatures to enact these policies into their own laws.  By dangling Race to the Top money in front of state legislatures in 2009 at the height of a recession, Duncan made it hard for state legislatures to resist temptation.  The result is that today, while Arne Duncan has left government to promote social entrepreneurship and work for a Chicago project of Lorene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, the educational policies of Race to the Top have been cast into the concrete of state laws, or at least buried in the statehouse sludge where nobody can remember them or identify them or pull them out.  And they have seeped into the conventional wisdom.

Here are some examples from my state, Ohio.

In No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style, Ohio continues to identify so-called “failing” schools.  My state continues to use aggregate student test scores as the basis of a branding system that assigns schools letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.  And it publicly ranks our public schools and school districts from best to worst based on standardized test scores.

When a public school is branded with an F, the old school turnaround strategies from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—requirements that have now been dropped at the federal level—continue to apply in Ohio.  The students in the so-called “failing” schools can secure an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child. Ohio also permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts.

The number of these vouchers and privatized charter schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”

Ohio uses state takeover rather than school closure as the punishment when a school district has been rated F for three consecutive years. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.

In Race to the Top and later in his No Child Left Behind Waivers program, Arne Duncan demanded that states commit to evaluating teachers based on the Value Added that could, supposedly, be identified in their students’ standardized test scores. Ohio complied enthusiastically with Duncan’s teacher evaluation policies by making 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on the standardized test scores of the teacher’s students.  Then, finally, after the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both condemned as unreliable the use of Value Added Measures for evaluating teachers, Congress ended the policy.  In the new federal education law, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress removed the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of the evaluation of teachers. Only in the summer of 2018, however, did Ohio finally amend its Duncan-driven policy for teachers’ evaluations. Finally the Legislature folded the use of test scores into a more complex evaluation that, lawmakers said, tracks how teachers are using test score data to inform their instruction. The new system won’t be implemented until the 2020-2021 academic year, however, and it still incorporates students’ test scores in a vague way. Today in 2019, Ohio still makes 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on students’ standardized test scores.

In Ohio, No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style punishment, not assistance, remains the strategy for the schools in our poorest communities. All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

A growing consensus that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were misguided in their obsessive use of high stakes standardized tests is widely documented in the research literature. The biggest problem is that these policies targeted the public schools in the nation’s poorest communities for punishment.  In his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, Daniel Koretz, a testing expert at Harvard University, explains how test-and-punish works: “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)

From West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky to Los Angeles, schoolteachers have been striking all year to show us how all this has gone wrong—robbing their schools of essential programs and staff.  I hope these people who know the conditions in their schools better than the rest of us will continue to challenge the conventional wisdom of the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top Era.

A big problem is that Arne Duncan induced state legislatures to embed his favorite ideas into the laws of the 50 states. It isn’t going to be so easy to get them cleaned out.

Test-and-Punish Just Hangs on as Failed Education Strategy

ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, is like an old, altered, jacket, now frayed at the cuffs. The fabric was never really good in the first place and, when the jacket was made over, the alternations didn’t do much to improve the design. Not much noticed at the back of the closet, the jacket sags there. But it would take too much energy to throw it away.

Pretty much everybody agrees these days that the 2001 school “reform” law, No Child Left Behind, was a failure. The Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos went to the American Enterprise Institute the other day and criticized the education policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, on January 8, 2018, the 16th anniversary of the day President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch declared, “NCLB, as it was known, is the worst federal education legislation ever passed by Congress.  It was punitive, harsh, stupid, ignorant about pedagogy and motivation, and ultimately a dismal failure… The theory was simple, simplistic, and stupid: test, then punish or reward.”

In December, 2015, Congress made over No Child Left Behind by passing the Every Student Succeeds Act.  While the law reduces the reach of the Secretary of Education and requires that the states instead of the federal government develop plans for punishing the so-called “failing” schools, ESSA, as the new version is called, keeps annual standardized testing and perpetuates the philosophy that the way to make educators raise test scores faster is to keep on with the sanctions.  ESSA remains a test-and-punish law.

But now it seems ESSA is going out of use like that old, remade jacket. The states, as required, have churned out their ESSA school improvement plans and submitted them to the U.S. Department of Education, and Betsy DeVos’s staff people have been busy approving them—in batches.  This week the Department approved a batch of eleven such plans—from Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Education Week‘s federal education reporter, Alyson Klein describes the eleven plans that were approved this week.

Ohio’s was one of the plans approved, and Patrick O’Donnell at the Plain Dealer perfectly captures the irony of the now pretty meaningless process in Ohio’s ESSA Plan Wins Federal Approval—and Few Care: “Though many observers nationally and here in Ohio had hoped states would present grand new visions for schools through the new plans mandated by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that hasn’t happened… State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria’s plan made few changes to the state’s testing and report card system, promising little more than making sure the state follows federal law. A new vision and approach?  That’s all being handled separately, just not in the plan. Critics wanted the plan to make big cuts in state tests. It doesn’t but DeMaria and the state school board later asked the legislature for those cuts.  Others wanted the plan to reduce the use of tests in teacher evaluations.  DeMaria and a panel of educators are seeking those changes apart from the submitted plan. And some wanted the state to show a vision for schools that was less reliant on test scores in academic subjects. School board members and several panels of educators have been meeting the last few months to build new goals that are far more focused on the ‘whole child’ than before.”

There is even some talk in Columbus about the problems of the state’s “A”-“F” letter grades to rate and rank schools and school districts, despite that Ohio’s school report cards with letter grades are a feature of the ESSA plan Ohio submitted and that was approved this week.

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act is merely a made over version of No Child Left Behind—made over because Congress wasn’t really ready to accept that the law’s overall strategy of high stakes testing and a succession of punishments has accomplished neither of NCLB’s overall goals: helping the children who have been left behind and closing achievement gaps.

But consensus about No Child Left Behind’s overall failure and the failure of it punitive strategy keeps on growing.  Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz put several more nails in its coffin in his excellent new book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Please read this book. In it Koretz shows exactly why the scheme of testing all students and punishing the teachers and the schools where scores do not rise quickly cannot work—why the scheme is merely a charade:  “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) “The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

If our society were intent on helping the children who have been left behind, we would invest in ameliorating poverty and in supporting the hard working teachers in the schools in our poorest communities. Things like reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program would help!  The ESSA plans being submitted to the Department of Education aren’t having much impact at all.  The old, made-over NCLB jacket is slowly slipping to the back of the closet.

Some Worrisome Pitfalls in the New Federal Education Law

Here, from Stan Karp at Rethinking Schools, is a savvy and crisply written assessment of federal policy in education—what the replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA) will mean.

In maybe the clearest and most succinct explanation I’ve read, Karp summarizes what No Child Left Behind did to our nation’s schools between its passage in 2001 and its long awaited reauthorization in December, 2015: “NCLB marked a dramatic change in federal education policy—away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity through support for things like school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs—to a much less equitable set of mandates around standards and testing, closing or ‘reconstituting’ schools, and replacing school staff.  NCLB required states to adopt curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress toward reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year, in every grade from 3 to 8 and again in high school. By any measure, NLCB was a failure in raising academic performance and narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes… NCLB succeeded in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to ‘fix’ schools while blaming those who work in them. The disaggregated scores put the spotlight on gaps between student groups, but the law used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or supports needed to eliminate them.”

Karp explains how Arne Duncan doubled down to make things even worse with the waivers from NCLB’s worst punishments. The waivers were granted to states that met Duncan’s conditions by passing punitive state laws: “If they agreed to tighten the screws on the most struggling schools serving the highest needs students, they could ease up on the rest, provided they also agreed to use test scores to evaluate all their teachers, expand the reach of charter schools and adopt ‘college and career ready’ curriculum standards and tests.”  Forty states passed laws to implement these punitive policies and they got the NCLB waivers, but the results hurt public schools: “More than 4,000 public schools were closed across the country.  Teachers and their unions were under siege.  More than 300,000 teachers lost their jobs.”  And test scores did not rise.

Karp does not expect the new Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December to be much better: “ESSA is more like a change in drivers than a U-turn.  The major elements of test and punish reform remain in place, but they are largely turned over to the states.”  The new law provides modest openings for positive change, but it merely permits state legislatures to revise the laws they passed to meet Arne Duncan’s conditions. While change is now possible, there are only a few places where the public is currently organized to insist on a major turnaround.

And writing for the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant highlights what he believes are the new law’s greatest weaknesses from the point of view of traditional public school districts, with a primary weakness being continued strong support for charter schools that is embedded right in the law itself: “Under ESSA, charter schools will continue to receive a hefty allotment of federal tax dollars in perpetuity… (T)he Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program has received over $3 billion from the feds to help launch new charter schools around the country. That outlay got an $80 million increase over last year and is slated for $333 million more in 2016.  ESSA also makes the charter school grant money part of the federal law rather than subject to annual authorization, which stabilizes the cash flow until the law is changed.” Bryant quotes Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,  who says ESSA provides “more flexibility and independence for charters.”

Bryant Interviews public school policy experts who remain hopeful that advocates can push the Department of Education and Congress to interpret ESSA’s requirements in a way that addresses serious funding inequity and discrimination that remain in our public system.  But Bryant worries that the new ESSA will neither provide mechanisms to hold charter schools accountable for strong academics nor prevent conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance. Charter schools are by definition far less regulated than their traditional public counterparts: “(T)he ominous specter of charter school industry expansions provided for by the new law can’t be ignored. Somehow, the creators of ESSA seem to believe this will all be sorted out at the state and local level.”

Like Bryant, Stan Karp worries: “For more than a decade states, under federal pressure, have been expanding the reach of test-driven reform, closing schools, and promoting charters and privatization. Rolling back these trends will not be easy. The new law does not reverse the decline in federal education funding or require states to end the inequities at the heart of most state school finance systems. There is little money for progressive reforms, like integration or community schools, and more for regressive ones like unchecked charter expansion….”

Diane Ravitch Sums Up Botched Bush-Obama Education Record

I urge you to read Solving the Mystery of the Schools, Diane Ravitch’s fine article in the March 24 issue of the New York Review of Books.  Ravitch reviews two important books, Dale Russakoff’s The Prize—the story of the plot hatched by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to charterize Newark’s schools—and Kristina Rizga’s Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, but the most interesting part is Ravitch’s accurate, succinct, and devastating summary of public education policy in America during the Bush and Obama years.  This is Diane Ravitch the education historian summarizing the meaning of more than fifteen years of misguided policy.

Ravitch begins: “In recent years, American public education has been swamped by bad ideas and policies.  Our national leaders, most of whom were educated at elite universities and should know better, have turned our most important domestic duty into a quest for higher scores on standardized tests.”

The Bush era, marked by the passage and implementation of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, is, of course, over. Here is Ravitch’s summary: “The punishments for not achieving higher test scores every year were increasingly onerous. A school that fell behind in the first year would be required to hire tutors.  In the second year, it would have to offer its students the choice to move to a different school.  By the end of five years, if it was not on track to achieve 100 percent proficiency, the school might be handed over to a private manager, turned into a charter school, taken over by the state, or closed.  In fact, there was no evidence that any of these sanctions would lead to better schools or higher test scores, but no matter.”

Ravitch also summarizes the major education initiatives of the Obama era, even though a few months are left before President Obama’s term ends.  She explains: “After Bush left office and was replaced by Barack Obama, the obsession with testing grew even more intense.  Congress gave Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $5 billion in economic stimulus funds to encourage education reforms.  Duncan released a plan in 2009 called Race to the Top…. In order to be eligible to compete for a share of that money at a time of deep economic distress, states had to adopt Duncan’s strategies.  They had to expand the number of privately managed charter schools in the state; they had to agree to adopt ‘college-and-career-ready standards’ (which were the not-yet-completed Common Core State Standards).  They had to agree, moreover, to evaluate teachers in relation to the rise or fall of the test scores of their students; and they had to agree to ‘turn around’ schools with low test scores by firing the principal, or firing all or half of the staff, or doing something equally drastic.  The standardized tests immediately became more important than ever.”

In December, Congress rebuked Arne Duncan (who was by then leaving his position) by reauthorizing a version of the federal education law that significantly limits the power of the U.S. Secretary of Education.  But Ravitch is not optimistic there will be a change in the overall direction of federal education policy: “Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states.  ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education.  It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states.  What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education.”

Both of the books Ravitch reviews are written by reporters who embedded themselves for four years in the places where they wanted to study education—Russakoff in Newark and Rizga at Mission High School in San Francisco. Both authors came to question the education orthodoxy of the Bush-Obama era.  Russakoff exposes the ideologically driven politics of the Christie-Booker effort to charterize Newark’s schools, and Rizga “realized that standardized test scores are not the best way to measure and promote learning. Typically, what they measure is the demographic profile of schools.  Thus, schools in affluent white suburbs tend to be called ‘good’ schools.  Schools that enroll children who are learning English and children who ware struggling in their personal lives have lower scores and are labeled ‘failing’ schools.”  San Francisco’s Mission High School serves 950 students from forty countries.

Ravitch concludes: “The authors of these two books demonstrate that grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent.  Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools… But a further lesson matters even more: improving education is not sufficient to ‘save’ all children from lives of poverty and violence.  As a society, we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty… every day of their lives.”

Education Writer Alfie Kohn on Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind Behind

On several occasions over the holidays, I was reminded of something I already knew: most people don’t want to wade in the weedy marsh of education policy.  If the mainstream press says the new Every Student Succeeds Act is a big improvement over No Child Left Behind, lots of people say, “Wow!  We can cross that worry off our list!”

Unfortunately things are going to be a whole lot more complicated.

Much of the thoughtful analysis of the new federal education law has been written for the education wonks who will parse and compare NCLB and ESSA and argue about what the Department of Education will put into the administrative rules.  Here, however, is education writer Alfie Kohn’s short, incisive, and well written commentary for the non-expert about the meaning of the new ESSA.  Everybody ought to read it, because Kohn so intelligently summarizes the  issues.

Here’s what Kohn says about No Child Left Behind, in response to those who liked NCLB and now worry that the new law waters down the old law’s strong federal pressure for accountability: “While the inadequacy and inequity certainly were (and are) inexcusable, NCLB was never a reasonable response  Indeed, as many of us predicted at the start, it did far more harm than good; in general, and with respect to addressing disparities between black and white, rich and poor, in particular. Standardized testing was never necessary to tell us which schools were failing.  Heck, you could just drive by them and make a reasonable guess…  For years, I’ve been challenging NCLB defenders to name a single school anywhere in the country whose inadequacy was a secret until students were subjected to yet another wave of standardized tests.  But testing isn’t just superfluous; it was, and remains, immensely damaging, to low-income students most of all.”

So what about those who are celebrating the new law because, they imagine, it will reduce standardized testing?  “(T)he outrageous and incalculably damaging reality of testing students every single year—extraordinary from a worldwide perspective, in fact virtually unheard of for students below high school age—continues in ESSA…  Far from challenging this reality, the law that President Obama just signed cements it into place.  And beyond the issue of how often they’re administered, standardized tests—still yoked to overly prescriptive, top-down standards—remain the primary way by which kids, teachers, and schools are going to be assessed.”

The new law does turn over from the federal government to the states the responsibility for designing and implementing the corrections for schools whose test scores are low, but as Kohn notes, “If you’re a teacher, it may not make much difference if oppressive dictates originate in Washington, D.C., the state capital, or even the district office.  The point is still that your skills as a professional educator, and the unique interests and needs of a particular group of kids, don’t count for much.  ESSA remains the Eternal Standardization of Schooling Act.”

Kohn concludes: “The point is that, even with more authority and re-devolving to the states, the broader foundations of what has been the educational status quo in America for a generation are allowed to continue and in some cases are actively perpetuated: the creep toward privatization, the traditional approaches to pedagogy and curriculum, the bribe-and-threat manipulation of educators and children, and, above all, the reliance on standardized testing.”

We have a lot of work to do.  The Every Student Succeeds Act has one major plus: it unbuckles—as a federal mandate—students’ standardized test scores from the formal evaluation of their teachers, but states can still judge teachers by students’ test scores if they so choose.  Apart from that, test-and-punish remains the law of the land.  Reading Alfie Kohn’s pungent analysis is a good reminder that we are a long, long way from any kind of policy that supports the schools and the educators in our most vulnerable communities.

John Oliver Examines NCLB, Race to the Top, and Testing in Comedy Monologue

Surely it must be significant that John Oliver, the HBO comedian, did an 18 minute segment last week on what’s gone haywire in American public education.  Oliver traces the history of test-and-punish since the federal testing law No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in January of 2002.  I urge you to watch this segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

You will see a clip of President George W. Bush defining (Definition probably wasn’t his strong point.) school accountability and a video of candidate Barack Obama, in a speech to the National Education Association, disdaining an education philosophy centered around children coloring in bubbles on standardized tests.  Oliver puzzles about the inconsistency—a candidate Obama who said he hated testing and a President Obama whose administration has vastly expanded the amount of testing through programs like Race to the Top that led to the Common Core and stretched the uses of testing not only for rating and punishing schools but also for evaluating teachers with algorithms based on their students’ scores.

As if that isn’t enough, Oliver looks into the corporate testing industry—its reach and power in the lives of children and teachers, it’s secrecy, and the public’s inability to do anything about it even when test questions are poorly written.  We hear from the people who work as test graders—people who responded to ads on Craig’s List, people who are themselves held accountable for coming up with a bell curve in scores among the essays they read—not too many high scores.

The situation in our schools has been at the same time absurd and deeply troubling for almost fifteen years now, but none of this seems to have seeped inside the Beltway, where Congress is considering legislation that leaves annual testing in place, continues to blame teachers, and fails to address serious problems in the struggling schools of our nation’s impoverished communities.

Is nobody paying attention to what is happening with our children?  I have wondered if, as a culture, we have adopted an education philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind”—if we have accepted a focus on test scores as a proxy for caring about our society’s children.  I am delighted to see John Oliver raising this issue as though it is something people watching television ought to be thinking and talking about.

Our children and our more than 3 million school teachers across America ought to matter to us.  Watch this video.  Talk about it.  Get some other people to watch it and talk about it.