The Test: Bad News (civil rights facade) and Good News (local accountability)

So do you want the good news or the bad news first? It’s a question my parents often asked me a child growing up. Which do you want to hear first? I’ll start with the bad news. High states testing has been around for a long time (See the post After Thousand of Years, #China Changing Mind on #Testing ? #edreform). Historically, the task of the test has been to sort people for their roles in society (See the post Walking Away From High Stakes Tests, A Noble Lie). Only recently has the argument been made that we can test to “identify low-performing schools” or to “close the achievement gap.” This retread of arguments onto the long standing practice of testing has been quite clever and became national policy with the No Child Left Behind Act imported from the Texas by President George W. Bush and former Secretary of Education Rod Paige 220px-George-W-Bush(See the peer reviewed paper Accountability Texas-style: The progress and learning of urban minority students in a high-stakes testing context)

The national media is now finally paying attention to the debate about the value of high-stakes testing. This morning, The Diane Rehm Show hosted an hour long discussion with,

  • Anya Kamenetz education reporter for NPR and author of “The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be”
  • Elaine Weiss national coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education
  • Matthew Chingos senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and research director of its Brown Center on Education Policy
  • Chanelle Hardy senior vice president for policy and executive director of the National Urban League Washington Bureau

Anya and Weiss thoughtfully critiqued our current system of high-stakes testing required by No Child Left Behind. You can listen to the entire show here.

Some “reformers” often want us to ignore effects/results/reality poverty in public policy and more specifically education policy…but…

Hardy (a former Teach For America corps member— I had a gut feeling that this was the case after listening to her comments and a quick Google confirmed this. Ever notice TFA corps members are everywhere but the classroom? To me how they choose to use their TFA-given power and platform after they leave the classroom is very important. Some use it for ill and some for good) and Chingos basically said lets keep high-stakes testing. I didn’t really hear any alternatives to the current top-down testing structure in their conversation. In fact Hardy, offered the common refrain that if we don’t “disaggregate testing data” it will suddenly be a mystery which schools and students are underperforming. This is an argument that bugs me allot. After being inside the belly of the beast in Houston during the formative years of accountability in Texas during the 1990s, it was very clear to me that Texas-style high-stakes testing and accountability (now NCLB) was and is a civil rights facade.

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In her recent book The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to BeAnya Kamenetz writes,

Your child is more than a score. But in the last twenty years, schools have dramatically increased standardized testing, sacrificing hours of classroom time. What is the cost to students, teachers, and families? How do we preserve space for self-directed learning and development—especially when we still want all children to hit the mark? The Test explores all sides of this problem—where these tests came from, their limitations and flaws, and ultimately what parents, teachers, and concerned citizens can do. It recounts the shocking history and tempestuous politics of testing…  It presents the stories of families, teachers, and schools maneuvering within and beyond the existing educational system, playing and winning the testing game.

I spoke with Anya as she prepared her book. Here were some my comments about my experiences with Texas-style high-testing and accountability as an employee of the Houston Independent School District in the Research and Accountability department during Rod Paige’s tenure.

on p. 86 of The Test

Not So Miraculous

As for the Texas Miracle itself, it, like A Nation at Risk before it, would be discredited, again to deaf ears. In 1999, Julian Vasquez Heilig was a freshly minted master’s graduate from the University of Michigan interviewing for a position with the Houston Independent School District. “I sat down with the assistant superintendent and she told me they’d closed the achievement gap and had 0% dropout rates. This was 1999. Rod Paige was superintendent. I started working in the research and accountability department and was able to see behind the scenes what was happening. I was really troubled.”

Eventually, for his PHD dissertation at the University of Texas, Heilig tracked 45,000 Houston students and found results very different from what his and other school districts were reporting. Heilig and other researchers found that 40-45% of African- American and Latino students—those who failed any core course—were being held back in the 9th grade in Houston. They could take sophomore classes, but they were officially re-classified as freshmen, meaning the lowest performers would sit out the 10th grade accountability test. Larger numbers of students were classified as English language learners and/or special ed, exempting them from the tests as well. When it came to 11th grade, the tactics got more insidious. The State of Texas eventually changed their reporting rules in response to evidence that these students were being “pushed out,” advised to leave and take the GED, then counted as transfer students rather than dropouts. (Heilig continues to document similar practices in Texas schools today). The majority of high schools in the city, Heilig found, had falsified their dropout rates. The effect was not small. At the same time that the US Department of Education was listing Houston’s high school dropout rate above 30%, Houston itself was reporting to the state a rate below 2 percent.

Heilig’s dissertation would not appear until 2006.

So how about that good news that I promised? For the past several years I have been writing about Community-Based Accountability and using multiple measure dashboards of data to understand the successes of our schools.

on p. 181 of The Test

One advocate of this approach, perhaps surprisingly, is Julian Vasquez Heilig, the researcher who exposed the Texas Miracle, now Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies at UT Austin (sic). He thinks that better data can avoid the unintended consequences created by a narrow reliance on standardized test scores.= “One of the interesting requirements of Race to the Top was more information systems,” he says. In 2009, all 50 states committed to creating data systems with 12 key elements. These included tracking each student by a unique statewide identifier, and seeing what happens when they leave school: do they graduate? Enroll in college? Do they need remediation in college? And sometimes, do they persist and get their degree? Because of this new level of detail, made possible by ever-growing computer power, test score snapshots could soon be replaced with long-range indicators of success. “We don’t need the testing companies to tell us who’s ‘college ready,’” says Heilig. “We can tell you what students are remedial, what they majored in, whether they persisted in college.”

For more on Community-Based accountability in theory and in practice in California click here.

on p. 189 of The Test

Heilig has proposed “community-based accountability,” where educational leaders come together with parents and community members to set short-term and long-term goals, to be measured with multiple indicators. The process respects local starting points and priorities. In a community like Oakland, California, where young black men are as likely to get killed as they are to graduate high school college ready, stopping the violence should be job #1. In affluent Scarsdale or Montgomery County, Maryland, Michael McGill and Joshua Starr focus on creative problem-solving abilities and technology literacy.

The state of California actually included a first step toward community-based accountability in the budget passed in 2013: a “local control funding formula” that rewards school districts for taking local steps toward bigger goals.

To Chingos, Hardy and every other high-testing lover of every stripe, there is an alternative to a system only based on high-testing testing. Quite simply— it’s considering multiple data points that actually matter to communities in a dashboard. Please spread the word. Let’s leave high-stakes testing as a sole indicator for everything—a civil rights facade— behind for our children.

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