Sorting Out the Debate About Educational Accountability

The watchword for the last quarter century’s school reform has been accountability: holding schools and school teachers accountable for quickly raising students’ scores on standardized tests. Sanctioning schools and teachers who can’t quickly raise scores was supposed to be an effective strategy for overcoming educational injustice. Test-and-punish has enabled us at least to say we’ve been doing something to hold schools accountable.

The politics of this conversation are pretty confusing—all going back to the federal education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the debate about its replacement, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was bipartisan agreement in 2001-2002 when NCLB was debated, passed, and signed into law that our society could close racial and economic achievement gaps by testing all students and then demanding that schools quickly raise the scores of underachieving students. In 2015 when Congress debated the law’s reauthorization, accountability-hawk Democrats stood by test-and-punish accountability; many Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander instead pushed to expand states’ rights by lifting the heavy hand of the federal government and allowing states to design their own plans to improve so-called failing schools. Worrying that removal of universal testing would let schools off the hook, the Civil Rights Community has stood by NCLB’s testing plan. Many have continued to assume that universal testing exposes achievement gaps and that the exposure will motivate politicians and educators to address racial and economic disparities.

Test-and-punish school reform has been at the center of a conversation between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Republican Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  An article by Caitlin Emma published over the weekend by POLITICO examines the history of No Child Left Behind vs. the Every Student Succeeds Act as a background for looking at how policy around school accountability has been evolving in the Trump administration. Emma describes the new ESSA, passed by a Republican Congress in 2015 and designed to return at least some authority for accountability back to the states. But Democrats prodded by Civil Rights leaders and some Republicans have stood by federally imposed accountability: “Critics… worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids…. (Even) former Republican Rep. John Kline… an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law—that states administer the same test to all students annually.  The provision is critical (Kline believes) so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.”

Emma explains: “The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed by Republicans as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed… No Child Left Behind.”  Emma reports that last summer, when Jason Botel, an official in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education began reviewing the states’ applications for federal funds under the ESSA, Botel demanded that before he would approve some states’ plans, they must toughen their standards and demand more.  Powerful Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had—during the 2015 reauthorization—supported a return of control to the states, formally complained to Betsy DeVos—“furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitions goals for their students.”

For many of us who have, for fifteen years, closely followed educational accountability as mandated under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the entire debate seems wrong-headed and bizarre.  I am writing about those of us who care deeply about expanding opportunity for children segregated in schools where poverty is highly concentrated— schools where intense segregation by poverty is overlaid on segregation by ethnicity and race. The schools these children attend have, under federal policy, been derided by accountability hawks as “failing” schools.  Widespread blaming—of schools and school teachers—now dominates discussions of school reform even as sociologists increasingly document that family and neighborhood poverty pose overwhelming challenges for these children and their schools.

Much of the confusion and rancor arises because the public debate about school accountability conflates two very different questions:

  • Should the federal government be involved at all in telling states what to do about education?
  • Is test-and-punish accountability an effective strategy for improving public schools and closing opportunity gaps?

The original federal education law, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressed the first question as a response to the needs of children in primarily southern states, where schools serving black children had been underfunded and inadequate for generations. There are similar problems of inequity across cities today and forgotten rural areas. Poor children and children of color segregated in particular areas remain under served. The debate about this first question involves states’ rights vs. what has come to be accepted (by many of us) as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children and ensure they are all well served. It is a heated question that remains underneath much of the debate about school reform.

The second question involves the strategy Congress chose for reforming schools in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Congress blamed teachers and schools and devised a law that was supposed to force schools and teachers to work harder and faster to improve test scores in schools where achievement lagged when all children in each state were tested on a single standardized test.  It is becoming clearer all the time that when Congress jumped behind test-and-punish accountability, it chose the wrong strategy.  A long and growing body of research demonstrates that test scores are far more aligned with a school’s aggregate economic level than with the work of the teachers or the curriculum being offered to students. Economists like Bruce Baker at Rutgers University also document enormous opportunity gaps as these same public schools in our nation’s poorest communities receive far less public investment than the schools in wealthy suburbs, schools serving children whose families also invest heavily in enrichments at home.

Here is just some of the prominent research from the past ten years that tries to answer the second question.

In 2010, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focused on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released a massive data analysis confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families 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.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In The Testing Charade, a book published just last month, Daniel Koretz of Harvard University blames test-and-punish accountability for enabling our society to pretend that we have been overcoming educational inequity at the same time we avoid making the public investment necessary even to begin addressing the problem: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)  “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)

The second question involves the overall direction of education policy, and it is important because we desperately need a better strategy. Blaming and punishing the schools with the lowest scores—by closing “failing” schools or privatizing them or firing their teachers and principals—has only further undermined the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities without addressing the opportunity gaps the tests identify.

Today’s Republican tax slashing agenda will only further reduce public investment in education.  And we are likely to keep on blaming the victims.

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Federally Mandated Test-and-Punish Didn’t Go Away with NCLB

As you very likely remember, No Child Left Behind, the much hated 2002 version of the federal education law—the one Jonathan Kozol once called “the federal testing law”— was reauthorized last December. Now instead we have the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There is widespread agreement that nearly fifteen years’ of test-based accountability has failed to raise overall student achievement; flat and declining scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress confirm that failure. Neither has the annual testing and disaggregation of scores resulted in the diminishing of achievement gaps. But the federal government doesn’t shift direction so easily.  Here is a quick update on what is happening as the rules that will implement the new law are being developed.

There is one bright spot: In the new law, Congress eliminated any federal mandate to tie teacher evaluation to students’ standardized test scores.  The U.S. Department of Education had made it a requirement that states applying for federal waivers from the worst punishments of NCLB could qualify for waivers only if they agreed to pass state laws to tie teacher evaluation to what have been called Value Added Measures—VAM algorithims that try to calculate the amount of learning each teacher “adds” to the overall education of each student.  The American Statistical Association, the American Educational Research Association and a number of academic researchers have demonstrated that VAM scores not only fail to measure many qualities of excellent teachers, but also are inaccurate and unstable from year to year.  It is possible that Congress listened to the experts—more likely that it listened on this one issue at least to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and many others who pointed to obviously flawed low VAM ratings for many award-winning teachers and to the collapse of morale among teachers across the United States.

While Congress eliminated the federal push to evaluate teachers by students’ scores, it could not undo the teacher-evaluation laws passed in recent years across the states to qualify for federal waivers. Hawaii, at least, has now begun to undo the damage, according to a mid-May report from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald: “Educators in Hawaii just became a little more powerful.  The State Board of Education unanimously approved recommendations Tuesday effectively removing standardized test scores as a requirement in the measurement of teacher performance…. The recommendations… will offer more flexibility to incorporate and weigh different components of teacher performance evaluation, although the option to use test scores in performance evaluations remains.”

Apart from teacher evaluation, however, not much about test-and-punish has really changed. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed rules for the implementation of ESSA and there has been considerable argument from Republican leaders in Congress who want to turn more authority over to states, while the Obama administration wants to keep the federal government strongly involved.

Here is the explanation of Emma Brown of the Washington Post: “The law requires states to continue administering standardized math and reading tests to students in Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.  But it also gave states a new opportunity to include other non-test measures, such as access to advanced coursework and rates of chronic absenteeism, in judging schools.  Under the regulations released Thursday, states would be required to wrap all of those various indicators into one simple rating, such as a letter grade, to provide parents with clear, easy-to-understand information about school performance… The previous education law, No Child Left Behind, prescribed sanctions for schools that failed to meet test score targets.  The Every Student Succeeds Act takes a different approach, allowing states to decide how to intervene in struggling schools as long as those interventions are ‘evidence based.'”

One thing is clear from press reports: the conversation remains centered pretty much in the weeds of the details of outcomes-based accountability—measuring schools’ success in meeting demands for higher test scores.  Here is how Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describes the proposed rules to implement ESSA: “The proposed regulations, among other things, would require states to ensure that school districts are implementing ‘accountability’ systems based on multiple measures.  The states have a lot of discretion on how those systems should be constructed but not total, with the federal government requiring that states ‘assign a comprehensive, summative rating for each school to provide a clear picture of its overall standing’….”

As the new law was debated in Congress last fall, the National Education Association lobbied hard for at least the inclusion of “input” measures as part of school evaluation to make it possible to consider each school’s real capacity to meet the demand for higher scores. This would have shifted the measure of accountability toward the consideration of a school’s resources.  The goal was to find a way to let districts expose inequity in things like class size, number of counselors and support staff, and financial resources available per-child from district to district.  States can still include such measures as part of their multiple-measure-accountability ratings, but it is unlikely to happen unless Congress pushes harder.  After all, that would shift the blame—and test-based accountability is a blame game—to the states that refuse to distribute funding equitably and persist in shorting the school districts that serve the poorest children.  And while states are now federally required to intervene in low-scoring schools, there is no evidence that the focus will shift from punitive interventions like closing or charterizing schools and firing educators, and no evidence that states will feel pressed to invest in the poorest schools.

One thing is clear.  In its proposed rules, the Obama Department of Education strongly discourages opt-outs by parents protesting the testing regime.  Strauss explains: “With a testing ‘opt out’ movement that has been growing in recent years, the department spells out a series of punitive options states should take in an attempt to get schools to ensure a 95 percent student participation rate on federally required state-selected standardized tests.” It remains unclear what the consequences would be for higher rates of opting out.  Strauss continues: “Under NCLB and now under ESSA, at least 95 percent of eligible students are required to take the state-chosen standardized test used to hold states and school districts ‘accountable.’  Last year, some states did drop below 95 percent, and in recent months the Education Department has been sending letters to states with ‘suggestions’ of how to handle schools that can’t drum up 95 percent support.  It also said federal funds could be withheld from states that did not deal effectively with opt outs.”  Although it is clear that the Department of Education discourages opting out, what the federal government will do about it remains unknown.

Public comment will be accepted on the draft rules until August 1, 2016.

Congress Is Likely to Reauthorize Education Law. How Will We Undo Arne Duncan’s Damage?

Seven years ago today—on November 30, 2008—I picked up my Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer to see a story above the fold on the front page, a story whose headline screamed: Good Teachers Are Key to Student Achievement, but Bad Ones Are Hard to Fire.  The story itself purported to be a news analysis, part of a series, “a Plain Dealer project reporting on the state of teaching.”  But then there was the photo, of a truck parked in front of the National Education Association’s building in Washington, D.C.  It was one of those trucks that pulls nothing but a sign, and this one—with a picture of a wormy apple—said: “Vote for the Worst Unionized Teachers Who Can’t Be Fired.”  Whatever the content of the article, the message that Sunday morning came from the sign the truck was pulling along—“worst unionized teachers who can’t be fired.”

Then a few days later came David Brooks’ NY Times column about newly elected President Barack Obama’s pending decision about a Secretary of Education.  The new president had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor of education to head his education transition team, but there was enormous pressure from New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg for Obama to choose Joel Klein, who was at that time serving as Bloomberg’s appointed chancellor of the NYC public schools.

On December 5, 2008, Brooks, a school “reformer” through and through, framed what had already become a polarized battle—“reformers” vs. teachers’ unions: “On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards.  On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.  During the presidential race, Barack Obama straddled the two camps.  One campaign adviser, John Schnur, represented the reform view in the internal discussions.  Another, Linda Darling-Hammond, was more likely to represent the establishment view… Each camp was secretly convinced that at the end of the day, Obama would come down on their side… Obama never had to pick a side.  That is, until now.  There is only one education secretary, and if you hang around these circles, the air is thick with speculation…   (O)ne morning a few weeks ago, I got a flurry of phone calls from reform leaders nervous that Obama was about to side against them…  (T)he union lobbying efforts are relentless and in the past week prospects for a reforming education secretary are thought to have dimmed… The candidates before Obama apparently include: Joel Klein, the highly successful New York chancellor who has, nonetheless, been blackballed by the unions; Arne Duncan, the reforming Chicago head who is less controversial; Darling-Hammond herself; and some former governor to be named later, with Darling-Hammond as the deputy secretary.  In some sense the final option would be the biggest setback for reform.  Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.  The stakes are huge.  For the first time in decades, there is real momentum for reform.”

The wave of articles that surfaced that week was noticeable, and in my office in the United Church of Christ’s justice ministries, I felt compelled to trade turns with someone else in the rota of staff who wrote the little Witness for Justice columns each week.  On December 15 that year, I described my fear: “(A)s I write, there is an attack on public school teachers by advocates who seek a Secretary who would base pay on test scores, deny tenure, intensify the test-and-punish mechanisms of No Child Left Behind, and rely far more on charter schools.  These critics deride public school improvement as mere ‘weak, status-quo’ reform.”

Fast-forward seven years, and here we are at the end of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure. Duncan’s policies have been so widely disliked in their implementation that there seems to be bipartisan Congressional consensus, unheard of these days, to undo the damage everybody has come to believe happened due to Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama and Duncan’s Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants and No Child Left Behind waivers.  Duncan has resigned as of the end of 2015, and will be replaced by John King, an acting secretary as a placeholder for the last year of President Obama’s term.

And if Congress acts this week finally (after several previous tries) to reauthorize the federal education law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we may find ourselves without the version we’ve been living with now for 14 years—No Child Left Behind.

While some of the “punishments” promoted by Duncan for so-called failing schools were originally outlined in 2002 in the original test-and-punish No Child Left Behind Act, Duncan and his Department were the ones who worked out how the “turnaround” plans that fired teachers and principals and closed or charterized schools would be imposed on our nation’s poorest schools.  While the problems in the economy were evident by December of 2008, nobody could have imagined the competitive grant programs that Duncan’s Department of Education created as part of the 2009 federal stimulus package.  These were the programs by which states applied for federal grants and eventually waivers from No Child Left Behind’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” system that had begun to attach the label of “failing” to far too many public schools in every state.  Duncan’s Department developed hoops states had to jump through even to apply for these federal grants—remove any state statutory caps on the number of charter schools that can be launched in any one year—intensify Value Added, econometric evaluations of school teachers based on their students’ test scores—embrace college-and-career-ready standards for all students.  Because the Department of Education cannot by federal law prescribe curricula, the Department merely incentivized states to adopt “more rigorous” standards, which in practical terms meant joining one of the two Common Core Curriculum consortia—PARCC or Smarter Balanced.

David Brooks’ words from December 2008 were prophetic: “Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.”  As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan was never one for grand pronouncements, but his Department’s actions have utterly transformed education policy across the fifty states.  State legislatures changed state laws to try for Race to the Top grants and to secure their waivers.  States removed caps on the launch of new charters, and then vastly expanded the number of charters with help from billions of dollars in federal Charter School Program grants. But nobody in the federal government imposed any oversight and only in the most careful states has there been regulation to protect children and taxpayers from unscrupulous profiteers.  Schools have been closed as a “turnaround” policy in many cities as children have been forced to relocate via public transportation in many cases, with some crossing dangerous gang boundaries. The American Statistical Association and now the American Educational Research Association have condemned the use of Value Added Measure algorithms for evaluating teachers because the formulas are unstable and fail to measure many of the qualities of a good teacher.

There is wide agreement that the bipartisan Congressional consensus that seems to have been reached on a plan to reauthorize No Child Left Behind is primarily a repudiation of Arne Duncan’s tenure and policies.

In a profound article, School Reform Fails the Test: How Can Our Schools Get Better When We’ve Made Our Teachers the Problem and Not the Solution?, Mike Rose the writer and UCLA professor of education wonders: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?  Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high states testing… had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development.  I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project…. Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have a direct link to local health and service agencies… Extra tutoring would be provided… Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students.”

Assuming that in the next week or so both houses of Congress affirm the agreement, passed the week before Thanksgiving by a Senate/House conference committee, to reauthorize the federal education law, the question will be where do we go from here?  Mike Rose’s vision describes where many of us would like education policy to go.  But Arne Duncan has ensured that Congress cannot just undo the explosive growth of charters or quickly take back the unworkable schemes for evaluating teachers that state legislatures have passed to qualify for federal No Child Left Behind waivers (even though the waivers themselves will be rendered unnecessary once No Child Left Behind is gone), or help states improve their curricula and avoid the ugly politics around the Common Core for which they have already signed up and invested millions of dollars. These policies have now been enacted into the laws of the fifty states. Amending or eliminating these policies will have to be accomplished one state legislature at a time and will require concerted state-by-state advocacy.

Cliches come to mind. The cats are out of the bag. Pandora’s box has been opened. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

NAEP Scores Stagnate; Test-and-Punish Flops; But Duncan’s New Plan Fails to Change Course

The biennial NAEP scores were released yesterday.  Diane Ravitch knows a lot about the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the NAEP.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years. She describes what this test is: “NAEP is an audit test. It is given every other year to samples of students in every state and in about 20 urban districts. No one can prepare for it, and no one gets a grade. NAEP measures the rise or fall of average scores for states in fourth grade and eighth grade in reading and math and reports them by race, gender, disability status, English language ability, economic status, and a variety of other measures. The 2015 NAEP scores showed no gains nationally in either grade and in either subject… The best single word to describe NAEP 2015 is stagnation.”

Ravitch describes what she believes is the meaning of this year’s scores, and I agree with her: “For nearly 15 years, Presidents Bush and Obama and the Congress have bet billions of dollars—both federal and state—on a strategy of testing, accountability, and choice.  They believed that if every student was tested in reading and mathematics every year from grades 3 to 8, test scores would go up and up. In those schools where test scores did not go up, the principals and teachers would be fired and replaced. Where scores didn’t go up for five years in a row, the schools would be closed. Thousands of educators were fired, and thousands of public schools were closed, based on the theory that sticks and carrots, rewards and punishments, would improve education.”  But it hasn’t worked.

Carol Burris, the retired NY high school principal and now executive director of the Network for Public Education, interprets the 2015 NAEP scores: “NAEP is a truth teller. There is no NAEP test prep industry, or high-stakes consequence that promotes teaching to the test. NAEP is what it was intended to be—a national report card by which we can gauge our national progress in educating our youth.  During the 1970s and ’80s, at the height of school desegregation efforts, the gap in scores between our nation’s white and black students dramatically narrowed. You could see the effects of good, national policy reflected in NAEP gains. The gaps have remained, however, and this year, the ever so slight narrowing of gaps between white and black students is due to drops in the scores of white students—hardly a civil rights victory.”

Last weekend, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced what some people have seen as a significant pivot in education policy—a turning away from reliance on so much testing and a limit of 2 percent on the amount of time students are spending taking standardized tests at school. Here is what the U.S. Department of Education’s press release says about the anticipated change: “In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students. The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this and we are committed to being part of the solution.”

The Department’s new Testing Action Plan describes seven principles that will govern a new testing policy whose formal guidance document will be released in 2016: Tests should be “worth taking,” “high quality,” “time-limited,” “fair—and supportive of fairness,” “fully transparent to students and parents,” “just one of multiple measures,” and “tied to improved learning.”  Duncan proposes to make funds available to help states and school districts “develop less-burdensome assessments,” to review their tests and make them more innovative, to pay for experts to guide states on how to reduce time on testing, and to provide technical assistance and even technical assistance centers and labs to “provide targeted assessment audit support.”

Duncan also indicates that the Department of Education will be more flexible in its demands relating to testing and its uses: “The Administration will invite states that wish to request waivers of federal rules that stand in the way of innovative approaches to testing to work with the Department to promote high-quality, comparable, statewide measures.”  Duncan continues: “The Department will work with external assessment experts to implement a more transparent assessment peer review process of state assessments… To avoid double-testing of students, the Department will offer states flexibility from No Child Left Behind’s requirement that all 8th graders be tested on the same, statewide 8th grade math and reading tests, when such students are taking advanced high-school level coursework in 8th grade.”  He adds: “The Administration has adjusted its policies to provide greater flexibility to states in determining how much weight to ascribe to statewide standardized test results in educator evaluation systems required under the Administration’s ESEA flexibility policy.”

The Department of Education’s proposal to adjust its testing policies follows a major report released last week by the Council of the Great City Schools that deplores the amount of standardized testing being required by the federal government and states.  The report explains that, “401 unique tests were administered across subjects in the 66 Great City School systems.  Students… were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12… The average student in these districts will typically take about eight standardized tests per year… Some of these tests are administered to fulfill federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, NCLB waivers, or Race to the Top, while many others originate at the state and local levels… Testing pursuant to NCLB in grade three through eight and once in high school in reading and mathematics is universal across all cities.  Science testing is also universal according to the grade bands specified in NCLB.  Testing in grades PK-2 is less prevalent than in other grades, but survey results indicate that testing in these grades is common as well… Urban school districts have more tests designed for diagnostic purposes than any other use, while having the fewest tests in place for purposes of international comparisons… Some 39 percent of districts reported having to wait between two and four months before final state test results were available at the school level, thereby minimizing their utility for instructional purposes… There is some redundancy in the exams districts give… The findings suggest that some tests are not well aligned to each other, are not specifically aligned with college-or career-ready standards, and often do not assess student mastery of any specific content.”

I don’t believe the Department’s change of plans will significantly address the challenges described so thoroughly by the Council for the Great City Schools.  America’s educational philosophy, formalized in 2002 in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and perpetuated for more than a dozen years now in federal policies like Race to the Top and the NCLB Waivers, is a two-pronged strategy: first test and then punish the districts and schools that cannot quickly raise scores on the tests.  It is the PUNISH strand of this policy that has caused the explosion of testing.  NCLB’s mandate of an annual test was the mere beginning.  Fear is the motivator in a system driven by sanctions and punishments.  In the school districts where scores are lowest, school officials, driven by fear, have added practice tests and benchmark tests and more practice tests and hours of test-prep—anything that might raise test scores. If students are tested again and again, says the logic of a test-and-punish plan, maybe students will get better at taking tests and their scores will rise.

Here are the problems I see in the new testing ideas announced last weekend by the Department of Education.

  • In the first place, as Diane Ravitch points out so clearly, limiting testing to 2 percent of the school year is not really much of a change: “Actually that wasn’t a true reduction, because 2% translates into between 18-24 hours of testing, which is a staggering amount of annual testing for children in grades 3-8 and not different from the status quo in most states.”
  • Secretary Duncan’s new plan does not cut testing as the centerpiece of current proposals in Congress for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (that we currently call NCLB). Duncan proposes neither to move from annual testing to grade-span testing (once in elementary, middle and high school) nor to eliminate the high stakes for school districts and schools (and their teachers) unable quickly to raise students’ scores.
  • High stakes will continue to frighten school district officials into narrowly focusing on the tested subjects of reading and math and to fill too much time with test prep lessons.
  • Somehow, says Duncan, there is to be more flexibility about basing teachers’ evaluations on students’ scores, particularly for teachers in subjects that are not tested. This presumably means we won’t be adding more tests in previously non-tested subjects just to be able to judge teachers by the tests.
  • It seems to me that—quite typically for this Administration—there will be more money made available for consultants to evaluate and re-calibrate the testing system.

Duncan’s concept is to retain a test-and-punish system.  Writing for Education Week‘s federal policy blog, Andrew Ujifusa quotes Secretary Duncan’s own description of the new plans at a press conference: “The goal is to have good assessment that drives instruction, and if you reduce testing to 1 percent, and it isn’t relevant… it is not guiding instruction, that is a loss, that’s a failure, not a win.” Ujifusa paraphrases Duncan’s next comment: “However, if students spend slightly more than 2 percent of instructional time on testing and the assessments are helping teachers, parents understand them, and students are part of the solution, that’s a good outcome.”  This sounds to me as though we are going to continue with a test-based system.

Considering the stagnant NAEP test scores released yesterday, Kevin Welner, Director of the National Education Policy Center, comments on Duncan’s recently announced reassessment of the role of standardized testing: “It’s long past time to recognize that any benefits of test-based accountability policies are at best very small, and any meager benefits teased out are more than counterbalanced by negative unintended consequences.” “This (the focus on testing) is the tragedy. It has distracted policymakers’ attention away from the extensive research showing that, in a very meaningful way, achievement is caused by opportunities to learn. It has diverted them from the truth that the achievement gap is caused by the opportunity gap. Those advocating for today’s policies have pushed policymakers to disregard the reality that the opportunity gap arises more from out-of-school factors that inside-of-school factors… So schools with low test scores were labeled ‘failing’ and were shut down or reconstituted or turned over to private operators of charter schools… Teachers whose students’ test scores didn’t meet targets were publicly shamed or denied pay or even dismissed.  Our entire public schooling structure became intensively focused on increasing test scores. But once we admit that those test scores are driven overwhelmingly by students’ poverty- and racism-related experiences outside of school, then ‘failing’ schools are little more than schools enrolling the children in the communities that we as a society have failed.”

What Did Arne Duncan Just Do to Washington State?

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education revoked Washington state’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver. What does this mean and does it matter?

In 2011, just before he created waivers from the most onerous consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan dismissed NCLB in one short piece of Congressional testimony: “We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk.”  The National Research Council agrees:  “Test-based incentive programs… have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.” It is now a truth universally acknowledged that NCLB didn’t get our schools to the goals we were holding them accountable for.

The law is still with us, however, because Congress cannot agree even on how to talk about a long-overdue reauthorization, and Arne Duncan’s waivers are merely a flimsy patch on a very bad problem.  More important, the law’s philosophy is very much still with us because mandatory standardized tests, standards-based curriculum, punishments for schools whose students are low-scoring, and incorporation of students’ test scores in the evaluation of teachers are embedded into the requirements set by Duncan’s Department of Education for states to apply for a waiver. The education policies of President Barack Obama’s administration closely resemble the policies of President George W. Bush’s administration.  Applying for Duncan’s waivers (along with other competitive programs like Race to the Top) has forced states to embed federal test-and-punish accountability into state by state legislation, synchronizing federal and state laws to impose test-based accountability for schools.

To think a little more deeply about the meaning of our society’s infatuation with test-and-punish accountability, it is fascinating to go back to some of the reams of criticism in the ten years between the time President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January of 2002 and the development of the waivers the Department of Education began offering states who agreed to Arne Duncan’s conditions in 2012.

Gary Orfield, Gail Sunderman, and James Kim of the Civil Rights Project published a book-length critique, NCLB Meets School Realities, in 2005, three years into the operation of NCLB.   Here is a selected summary of conclusions from the book’s introduction:

“Underlying NCLB is the assumption that schools by themselves can achieve dramatic, totally unprecedented levels of educational achievement for all racial and ethnic groups as well as for children with disabilities, low-income children, and children who lack English fluency—all in a short space of time and without changing any of the other inequalities in their lives.  Substantial yearly gains must be made for each of these groups in every individual school to meet the requirements of NCLB…”

“Though it was still providing less than a tenth of the resources, the federal government was no longer a modest partner in educational systems dominated by state and local agencies….  Supporters defined the law’s requirements as accountability, not control of education, but accountability for specific educational outcomes with very high stakes attached….  Local educators have no control over the standards or requirements, which are decided by the state officials.  In a predominantly suburban society where the cities often have rapidly declining influence, the school districts with the highest concentration of minority and low-income students may have virtually no voice in setting these standards….”

“Money has been a problem…. First, the very substantial increases in federal funding, which the Democrats had thought were part of the bargain to enact the law, did not materialize…. Second, the schools received less funding from state and local governments than they had expected.  Third, there were major costs involved in complying with the law’s requirements; and fourth, the law set aside 20% of the funds, not for use by the schools, but for transfer programs and the purchase of private tutoring services by parents…”

“Teachers and their organizations, and people who do research on teachers, were not actively involved in the writing of NCLB and often seem to be the target of the Act… NCLB treats educational improvement as a regulatory rather than an educational and professional problem.  This implies that high-poverty schools have less-qualified teachers because they have not done enough to attract better teachers or the teachers are not working hard enough.  It also implies that the solution to improving teacher quality is to force schools to hire better teachers and get rid of the less-qualified ones.” (pp. xxvii-xxxiii)

Prophetic words.

In 2012, the Obama administration acknowledged the failure of NCLB’s accountability scheme by offering the states waivers from the law’s overly punitive consequences.  NCLB had required that the states develop a timetable of ever rising annual test scores by which all American children would be proficient by 2014.  Public schools unable to make Adequate Yearly Progress by bringing all children to higher benchmark scores every year were to be declared “failing,” and by 2012 it was known that by the 2014 deadline, the vast majority of America’s public schools would be categorized as “failing.” The law had established accountability for schools that could not make children universally above average, but nobody had figured out what to do when  all schools inevitably fell behind.

NCLB waivers stopped the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks and time line.  Schools would cease to be declared “failing” if their students’ scores failed to rise every year until all children demonstrated proficiency.  Waivers actually helped in one other important way: NCLB had also required that districts with “failing” schools set aside 20 percent of their Title I money to pay for families to get private tutoring or to transport their children to more successful schools.  Waivers allowed school districts to use that money for school improvement and eliminated the private tutoring and school transfer provision.

Forty-two states applied for and received waivers, according to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post,  along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and eight school districts in California that fought for the right to apply on their own.  But last Thursday, Arne Duncan revoked Washington state’s waiver.  Why?

The waivers softened the consequences but didn’t get rid of the testing and data collection. One of the requirements set by the Obama administration for qualifying for  a NCLB waiver was that states had to promise to incorporate students’ test scores on the state tests required by NCLB into teacher evaluations.  Alyson Klein, writing for Education Week, reports that the legislature in the state of Washington couldn’t agree to count only the NCLB-required state test for teacher evaluation.  Instead Washington’s legislature said “districts can choose either state or local assessments.”

What will the loss of the waiver mean for Washington state?  John Higgins, writing for the Seattle Times, presents the local point of view:  “This fall, state education chief Randy Dorn will again ask the Legislature for dramatically increased funding to comply with the Supreme Court’s school-funding decision.  At the same time, most of the state’s parents will be receiving letters explaining that their children attend schools in failing districts… Districts will lose control over how they spend part of their share of about $40 million in federal funding…. Under the waiver, state school districts have been able to tap those funds to provide preschool, full-day kindergarten, teacher training and extra help from certified teachers after school and during the summer.  Now… districts with struggling schools will have to set aside 20 percent of their share to pay for individual tutoring from private vendors outside the district or to cover busing costs for children who want to transfer from a failing school to a non-failing school.  For schools in Seattle, that amounts to about $1.6 million that will have to be set aside for next year.”

None of this would appear to be helpful to schools or children in Washington state.  But no matter.  We seem to be a society programmed these days to swallow plans for accountability.  Set some rules, set some benchmarks we can measure, get a lot of data, and voila, we’ve got accountability.  Whether our system actually accomplishes the goals it was set up to support — whether the rules accomplish anything useful at all — are, of course,  very different questions that we rarely discuss these days.   Nobody seems to be accountable for the morass of accountability into which we have sunk.

Revolving Door Undermines the Democratic Process

The NY Times has been covering the revolving door in Washington, D.C., by which those who are lobbying have recently been serving as members of Congress or more likely as the aides who write the laws the members themselves introduce.

These newspaper articles are worrisome, for as the NY Times notes in the headline for its Monday editorial, “The Capitol’s Spinning Door Accelerates.”  “A new study by the Sunlight Foundation found that the number of active lobbyists with prior government experience has nearly quadrupled since 1998, rising to 1,846 in 2012.  Those revolving-door lobbyists, mostly from Capitol Hill, accounted for nearly all of the huge growth in lobbying revenue during that period, which increased to $1.32 billion from $703 million in 1998.”

The in-depth article to which Monday’s editorial refers appeared in Sunday’s paper: Law Doesn’t End Revolving Door on Capitol Hill. Although none of the examples reported relates directly to lobbying in public education, I believe there are implications of the revolving-door culture for the laws that affect public schools.

And it isn’t merely that Sandy Kress, one of the primary authors of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), revolved right into being a lobbyist (for over ten years now) for Pearson, which has for years been creating the tests, and grading and aggregating data from the tests, that NCLB requires all states to administer to children in grades 3-8.  Pearson is the huge corporation that is now preparing tests and curricula for the Common Core and now managing the GED program by which high school dropouts can earn an equivalency diploma by taking the GED exams.

There is also something far more subtle going on than the blatant influence-peddling.  If one asks parents what concerns them most about their children’s schools, the answer will likely touch on school funding, as demonstrated in last fall’s Phi Delta Kappa poll, when the majority of people polled said the biggest problem for public schools is lack of financial support.  Or the issue of class size will likely arise.  In New York City there is a non-profit organization devoted to raising this particular issue: Class Size Matters.

These are not, however,  the primary topics of debate inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C., where the assumptions and values underneath the No Child Left Behind Act still shape the conversation.  It is difficult to get people on the Hill to question whether our public education system ought to be driven by standardized testing; instead the conversation centers on what kind of testing, how the tests should be graded, and whether Common Core tests ought to be administered on-line.

In Washington, it is also pretty hard to get a conversation going about how to better support teachers in our poorest communities.  What are the assets in those public schools and how can the federal government build upon those assets?  Is it really true that those are “failing” schools?  The conversation now instead follows a predictable pattern about the range of sanctions to induce the staff in those schools to work harder.

In a place where young Congressional aides shape their understanding of public education on the Hill and then in jobs with the professional organizations that lobby the Hill, too many have little experience with the daily life in a public school,  the real  challenges and exhausting schedule in the life of a teacher or the hard budgetary choices of a superintendent or principal who has to cut music in order to have enough reading teachers or school social workers.

The fact that school spending is lower across the majority of states than it was in 2008 does not get connected to what Congress proposes to require of schools.  And it is impossible to have serious conversation about the reality that when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975, Congress promised to fund 40 percent of the cost for school districts.  However Congress has never paid more than 19 percent, less in most years.  It is as though the challenges of providing the required special education programs are invisible to the people responsible for appropriating the funding.

How can one reach the people who are influencing law-making? How can we ensure that the voices of teachers and parents are heard?  Democracy works only when there is real space for conversation.  Today much of the conversation is framed in rhetoric, and those inside and outside the Beltway don’t even realize they are imagining different visions for our public schools.

New Report Shows How Test-and-Punish Texas Miracle Damaged Lives of 3 El Paso Teens

In the early years after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, we were told the law was going to bring the Texas Miracle to the whole country.  Supposedly, through the imposition of standardized testing—with serious consequences for schools and educators who failed quickly to raise scores—schools across the United States would raise expectations for students, thereby improving academic achievement and closing achievement gaps among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups of students.

In The Children Left Behind, Debbie Nathan tells the stories of Sonia, Yanderier, and Leo, three students who were counseled out of Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas when school administrators predicted their TAKS scores (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) would be low, and would diminish the overall test scores by which their schools were to be rated.

As early as 2003, reporters, here and here, began questioning whether touted gains in Houston’s test scores were real.  In 2008, Linda McNeil, a professor at Rice University, published a scholarly, peer-reviewed study, Avoidable Losses: High-Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis, of the practice of pushing students out of school.  She described rigid annual performance contracts by which high school principals in Texas were required to sign away their tenure and guarantee rapid test score increases for all the subgroups whose scores were disaggregated under No Child Left Behind.  Under pressure from school leaders, the state created a waiver that permitted schools to divert students likely to fail the TAKS by refusing to promote to tenth grade any students who had failed even one semester of a required ninth grade course.  Waivers permitted schools to hold students in ninth grade sometimes indefinitely to protect the school itself from the students’ failure on the tenth grade exam.

Debbie Nathan’s very personal new article shows how high stakes test-and-punish changed the lives of three vulnerable teenagers.  She located three students who were counseled into GED programs when school administrators worried about their scores. None of them realized that Texas law protected their right to attend school until age 21.  All three eventually dropped out of school without completing any sort of diploma.  This year, after learning of their rights while being interviewed by the reporter, two of the young adults sought counseling to learn how they could return to school and finally secure a GED.

Nathan cites New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera who, “points out that as long as high-stakes testing remains policy, little can be done to completely eliminate this kind of cheating.  It’s easy for an administrator to convince a struggling 18- or 19-year-old that studying for the GED might be more productive than staying in school.”

Nathan reports that in 2013, with prodding from a new law passed by the Texas legislature, El Paso’s school district has made it a priority to find students who were pushed-out and to provide compensatory services.  But as we learn in the stories of Sonia, Yanderier, and Leo, the loss of the opportunity to complete high school limits not only the chance for employment but also self respect and hope.