Testing and Accountability: The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

What if you could talk to yourself 20 years in the future? In our most recent peer-reviewed study to be published in Urban Review, we wanted to know how students of similar characteristics were experiencing NCLB-style policies in the same urban school in two different decades. Our first sample of students attended the urban high school at the cusp of NCLB-style policies in Texas near the start of the testing and accountability regime in the early 1990s. We then interviewed different students in 2010 with similar characteristics to compare their experiences in schools. Because so little attention has been paid to the impact of testing and accountability on special education students, our sample was comprised of this special population.

What did we find?

Over the last two decades, our nation has seen an array of reform initiatives that support lofty goals for student achievement. An underexplored issue in the literature is how this school reform set against the backdrop of high-stakes testing has impacted the students it is designed to assist. Now armed with years of student data, critics of accountability reform have argued that high stakes testing has done little to improve the educational outcomes of persistently low achieving students— urban poor, minority and students with disabilities. The statistics show a bleak picture. But, the numbers only tell half the story. This qualitative case study uses narrative analysis to detail the stories of 12 special education students in an urban Texas high school who experienced first hand the effects and fallout of accountability reform. The authors had the unique opportunity to interview two sets of students, one in 1995 when high stakes testing was first introduced and one in 2012 after two decades of implementation. Chronicling the voices of special education students at the same school over a 15 year period reveals that schooling experiences of these students have neither fundamentally changed nor improved despite numerous reform

What did we conclude?

For students interviewed in 1995, the consequences and pressure associated with high-stakes testing and accountability policies were still evolving. Nevertheless, junior and senior students at the high school who failed one or more portions of the test in their sophomore year and beyond were placed in a “test prep” class. Students “hated” the class and opposed the policy that dictated its implementation. For them, the weight of completing 12 years of school was sufficient to demonstrate their readiness for graduation. They equated the additional requirement to pass a test to graduate as “hypocrisy” and “betrayal.”

In contrast, students in the 2010 study appeared to be somewhat more tolerant and accepting of the testing policies and requirements— which makes sense because their entire life they had attended school in the midst of the a high-stakes testing and accountability reform paradigm. Nevertheless, both student groups found the focus on high-stakes testing in the curriculum and pedagogy of the school to be onerous and disconcerting.

Due to high stakes testing mandates, the curriculum and instruction components of both the general and special education classroom, particularly in 2010, shifted to a focus on the acquisition of specific knowledge and skills in terms of what students will be expected to know and do to demonstrate proficiency on the TAAS and TAKS tests. “Failing” special education students were punished by being separated from the regular student population and assigned to “extracurricular” test-prep tutorial classes or special education resource classes and programs. The special education students saw this as a test-driven affront that failed to engage them–even in subjects they identified as favorites. Furthermore, because of the all-consuming focus on test performance, students felt they missed out on important social learning the school would otherwise have provided.

To date, the system of schooling driven by NCLB (2002) and the policy assumptions that have galvanized reform approaches, specifically for special education students, have gone largely unchallenged. The students’ voices in this paper disputes the underlying assumption that high-stakes testing and accountability have improved the situation for students with disabilities in this particular urban turnaround high school on its head. Turnaround reforms in this particular school have not helped special education students but rather have made them the pariahs of a system obsessed with test scores. Students who are unsuccessful on the high-stakes tests are in effect, blamed and punished with test-prep and remediation courses

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 1.43.35 PM(and often by not graduating) for their poor performance in our top-down educational policy era (McDermott, Goldman, & Varenne, 2006; McDermott & Varenne, 1995; Pazey, 1996; Varenne & McDermott, 1998). How educational professionals and policymakers view and react to special education students who fail to meet performance expectations in this era of high stakes accountability is a critical area for further research. Instead of bolstering and improving the education of students with disabilities, this case study suggests that high stakes testing may devalue, demoralize and alienate the very students it intended to help.

Policymakers have been largely tone-deaf to the impacts of NCLB (2002) required high-stakes testing on students. In fact, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top (USDOE, 2009) grant program buttressed rather than retreated from the testing and data mandates initiated in federal and state policy by NCLB. Policymakers involved in initiating and implementing school reform and turnaround efforts have made few public attempts to listen to the voices of special education students and their families. Calls for congressional hearings on the impact of high-stakes testing by advocacy organizations, such as the Network for Public Education, have continually fallen on deaf ears. Unless these issues are examined and students and families’ perspectives are heard and considered against the theory of action that underlies high-stakes tests, schools providing special education services may continue to be forced to ignore their appropriate levels of knowing and understanding and align with standardized ways of learning which, in effect, will hinder any long-term change or positive effect in the current and future climate of systematic and school turnaround reforms.

We believe now is the time to begin to integrate the voices of special education students and their families into school reform. A number of scholars (Beaudoin, 2008; Cook-Sather, 2002, 2006; Goodman & Eren, 2013; McCombs, 2003; Mitra, 2003, 2009; Shields, 2003; Thiessen, 2006) have been strong proponents of the power and importance of accounting for student perspectives in education. Administrators, teachers and policymakers alike must pay more specific attention to real-world impact, or lack thereof, from school turnaround, high-stakes testing, accountability and other NCLB-inspired policies on special education students. How can we claim success when the students we are purporting to help are experiencing accentuated test-driven environments and school remain low-performing? We need to find ways to engage students so we can come up with realistic and workable approaches that are student and classroom focused (Mitra & Gross, 2009; Storz, 2008) rather than more top-down testing and accountability policies that haven’t appreciably changed the realities for special education students at the classroom level.

This study attempted to gauge student perspectives on how high-stakes testing and its consequential accountability reform efforts have impacted high school students in special education programs at an urban, minority high school at two different points in time. Ultimately, we found that the school environment special education students must navigate looked eerily similar after nearly two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability policies. These are disappointing, if not dismal results. Analysis and comparison of the data across decades suggest that accountability and high-stakes testing strategies have yielded minimal effects for students with disabilities despite the soaring rhetoric and continued support of high-stakes testing for special education students by policymakers. Click link below in reference for pdf of full article.

Current Reference: Pazey, B., Vasquez Heilig, J., Cole, H & Sumbera, M. (2014). The more things change, the more they stay the same: Comparing Special Education students’ experiences of accountability reform across two decades Urban Review, XX(XX), XX-XX. doi:10.1007/s11256-014-0312-7

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