Faith in High Stakes Testing Fades, Even Among the Corporate School Reformers

After a recent twenty-fifth anniversary conference at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell—a Gates funded education-reformer think tank, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum summarized presentations by a number of speakers who demonstrate growing skepticism about the high-stakes, standardized testing regime that has dominated American public education for over a quarter of a century.

Because the Center on Reinventing Public Education is known as an advocate for portfolio school reform and corporate accountability, you might expect adherence to the dogma of test-and-punish, but, notes Barnum:  “The pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then to push them to improve.”

Then at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology School Access and Quality Summit early this month, Paymon Rouhanifard presented a major policy address challenging the use of high stakes testing to rank and rate public schools.  Rouhanifard was until very recently Chris Christy’s appointed, school-reformer superintendent in Camden, New Jersey.  Formerly he was the director in New York City of Joel Klein’s Office of Portfolio Management.  Rouhanifard describes the belief system he brought with him to Camden and describes how his five-year tenure as Camden’s superintendent transformed his thinking: “Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing…  We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools….  This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience…. What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make… My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us.  What they didn’t tell us.  And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on state tests.”

In 2013, at the beginning of his tenure, Rouhanifard introduced a school report card that rated each school primarily by students’ standardized test scores. Two years ago Rouhanifard eliminated his own school report cards.  He describes his realization: “We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized.  We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education…. I… believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits.  That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, like Rouhanifard, held a position in Joel Klein’s “reformer” school administration in New York City.  Now the president of Bank Street College of Education, he was formerly Klein’s former deputy schools chancellor. Barnum explains that Polakow-Suransky has become an emphatic critic of the nation’s high-stakes standardized testing regime: “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

In a piece at The74, the  Thomas Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio quotes Polakow-Suransky: “All of us were well-intentioned in pushing this agenda, but the tools we developed were not effective in raising the bar on a wide scale.”

While the Thomas Fordham Institute has endorsed corporate school reform including high-stakes, test-based accountability, Fordham’s Pondiscio now acknowledges that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. public schools have become mired in an education culture defined by test-based accountability.  Though he seems unclear on the way forward, Pondiscio now advocates for serious reconsideration: “The challenge is not testing vs. not testing.  It’s not accountability vs. none.  Both bring benefits of different kinds, and both are required by a federal law that’s not going to change anytime soon.  The challenge is to develop a policy vision that supports—not thwarts—the classroom practices and long-term student outcomes we seek… The problem is the reductive culture of testing, which has come to shape and define American education, particularly in the kinds of schools attended by our most disadvantaged children.”

There are some who remain faithful to the school reformer dogma. The Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Robin Lake tries to change the subject: “We need a more productive debate about school accountability, not tired arguments over testing.” And Matt Barnum quotes Sandy Kress—still a tried-and-true believer in the No Child Left Behind regime he helped create: “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing the achievement gap and lifting student achievement.”

Of course, research does not clearly show that Sandy Kress’s kind of No Child Left Behind accountability made a real difference.  Here is Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, in the authoritative book he published a year ago, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.  It is perhaps this volume by an academic expert on testing that has helped change the minds of some of the corporate school reformers quoted above.  Koretz writes: “It is no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge.  Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.  Cheating has become widespread.  The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed.  Many students are subjected to severe stress, not only during testing but also for long periods leading up to it.  Educators have been evaluated in misleading and in some cases utterly absurd ways  Careers have been disrupted and in some cases ended.  Educators, including prominent administrators, have been indicted and even imprisoned.  The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation.  This is true despite the many variants of test-based accountability the reformers have tried, and there is nothing on the horizon now that suggests that the net effects will be better in the future. On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 191-192)

Introducing readers to Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” Koretz defines the problems inherent in our society’s quarter century of high-stakes, test-and-punish school accountability by quoting Campbell’s Law:  “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 intend to monitor.”  Campbell directly addresses the problem of high stakes testing to rank and rate schools:  “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)

How has the testing regime operated perversely to undermine the schools serving our society’s most vulnerable children—the ones we were told No Child Left Behind would catch up academically if only we created incentives and punishments to motivate their teachers to work harder?  “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 may 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)

Besides imposing unreasonable and damaging punishments on the schools and teachers serving our society’s poorest children, Koretz believes our commitment to a regime of punitive testing has distracted our society from developing the commitment to address the real needs of children and schools in places where poverty is concentrated: “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)

States Fail at “Running the Local Schools,” Despite What Chris Christie Says

Public schools are human institutions, places where adults work to foster the intellectual, linguistic, mathematical, social, ethical, emotional, and physical growth and development of children. Schools must be structured to foster a climate of physical and emotional safety and support. They need to connect with families in a natural way, for parents and guardians are children’s primary teachers.  Children thrive when there is mutuality between the school and the family.  Schools are primary social institutions in the neighborhood, places where the interests of the community converge.

The novelist Ivan Doig, who has set most of his books in the tiny homesteading communities of northern Montana’s high plains, captures this understanding in his novel about the meaning of a remote one room school.  The narrator, looking back at his seventh grade year, describes how he came to understand the importance of his school one day as he gazed at the prairie where it is set: “So there in the dwindling light of the afternoon I tried to take in that world between the manageable horizons.  The cutaway bluffs where the Marias River lay low and hidden were the limit of field of vision in one direction.  In the other was the edge of the smooth-buttered plain leading to Westwater…. Closer, though, was where I found the longest look into things.  Out beyond the play area, there were round rims of shadow on the patch of prairie where the horses we rode to school had eaten the grass down in circles around their picket stakes. Perhaps that pattern drew my eye to what I had viewed every day of my school life but never until then truly registered: the trails in the grass that radiated in as many directions as there were homesteads with children, all converging to that schoolyard spot where I stood unnaturally alone. Forever and a day could go by, and that feeling will never leave me.  Of knowing, in that instant, the central power of that country school in all our lives… Everyone I could think of had something at stake in the school…”  The narrator names the ways the community owns the school—his father and the other members of the school board, the men who built the school and the home for the teacher, the mothers who send their children off on horses in all weather, the teacher, the students. “We all answered, with some part of our lives, to the pull of this small knoll of prospect, this isolated square of school ground.” (The Whistling Season, pp 120-21)

While the portrait Doig paints is a fictional ideal, it captures a model of education encompassing public purpose and public ownership, a model described more formally by John Adams in 1785: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set aside one section of each township for a school.

Contrast these attitudes and assumptions about public schools to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s understanding: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”

Christie was responding to a firestorm of local criticism of his administration’s management of the schools in Newark.  Newark’s schools have been under state control for nearly two decades. Controversy about state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson—her high-handed  One Newark plan to close schools and rapidly expand charter schools, her punishment of staff who dared to disagree with her—became the central issue in the Newark mayor’s race in May, with Ras Baraka, a school principal and vocal opponent of the policies of Anderson and Christie the winner.  (This blog has extensively covered the privatization and mismanagement of Newark’s schools by Anderson here, here, here, here,  and here.)

Sadly, despite his recent electoral victory, Mayor Ras Baraka does not control the schools of Newark; neither does the community.  Bob Braun, fifty-year reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger and now a blogger, recently despaired about the loss of community control: “The political power of both the city’s clergy and its public employee unions is non-existent.  The election of Ras Baraka as mayor did nothing to stop or even slow down the “One Newark” plan.  The privatization of the city’s schools will continue unabated.”  Braun reports that in June, Anderson’s contract was renewed despite that she has refused to attend public school board meetings; that she has rewarded her friends and their friends with huge contracts; that she has suspended building principals for speaking out against One Newark and told the principal of the city’s most successful high school that he must reapply for his job, fired another principal at a high achieving school, and downgraded the evaluations of other principals who were formerly highly rated but who have since criticized her leadership; that she has given huge raises to administrators she imported after laying off essential school staff to cut costs; that she has continued to close neighborhood schools and imposed a chaotic and unproven open-enrollment plan that requires parents to apply; and that she ignored the pleas of 77 members of the local clergy to place a moratorium on her plan.  Braun comments on Cami Anderson’s boss, Governor Chris Christie: “And, to Chris Christie, the governor of the state, the aspirations of the people of Newark are like mud stuck on the bottom of his shoe—he can just scrape it off on the nearest curb and keep on walking.”

Christie’s arrogance extends well beyond Newark. Across New Jersey we are watching the imposition by the state of corporate takeover in the poorest big city school districts without consideration of the wishes of the citizens of particular school districts.  Anthony Cody, who writes a column for Education Week, just published a guest post—this time about Camden—by Julia Sass Rubin, a professor of public policy at Rutgers and visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.  Rubin reports that, led by appointed Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, several charter chains, seeking to expand rapidly, exerted influence in Trenton to get a state law amended to permit them to locate in temporary facilities and without any public review and comment by the citizens of Camden. “Rather than stopping their illegal activities… the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains and the Camden Superintendent turned to their friends in the legislature to ‘fix’ the problems by amending the Urban Hope legislation so that what had been illegal could now be legal.”

According to Rubin, “The negative fiscal impact of the renaissance charter program is already being felt on the Camden District’s public schools.  Hundreds of teachers and staff members were fired this spring because of projected budget shortfalls caused by payments the district has to make to renaissance and regular charter school…  Camden parents already lament the constant harassment by those charter chains, whose representatives approach them at every venue, come to their homes, and even try to recruit their children on school playgrounds.”

Camden, like Newark, is under state control.  “Camden parents understand that the superintendent works for the governor rather than for them… The District has no elected Board of Education and even the appointed Board that served prior to the 2013 state takeover of the District has been replaced by individuals willing to rubber stamp the Christie Administration’s actions.”  “Rouhanifard, the Camden superintendent, is undeniably allied with the charter chains.” “There is even a publicly-available blueprint that details the Christie Administration’s intentions to convert Camden into a New Orleans style all-charter district….”

I do not know of one school district anywhere that has been improved by state takeover.  Historically states take over school districts to cut costs. The big-city school districts taken over are always places where family poverty is concentrated, where the tax base is in decline, and where middle class families have already taken their children to the suburbs. The story of Newark and Camden is also the story of Detroit, and Philadelphia.  The goal is efficient management, not school improvement.  I have never heard discussed an infusion of state aid in such situations.

Linda Darling-Hammond, “wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity….”  (The Flat World and Education, p 164)   I believe the most important priority in American public education must be to stop pretending the imposition of “corporate” and “portfolio” school privatization is some kind of cure for inequality and to invest in improving the schools across the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities.  Successful school improvement cannot be done to a community; it must be accomplished with the community.