Grading Education Test-Based Accountability Can’t Work, But Testing Plus Careful School Inspections Can
By Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder
The American Educator (AFT)
Noble though its intent may be, the No Child Left Behind Act—the federal law that requires virtually all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014—is an utter failure. Many critics have denounced it, as well as similar state accountability policies based exclusively on quantitative measures of a narrow set of
school outcomes. Critics have described how accountability for math and reading scores has inaccurately identified good and bad schools, narrowed the curriculum (by creating perverse incentives for schools to ignore many important purposes of schools beyond improving math and reading test scores), caused teachers to focus on some students at the expense of others, and tempted educators to substitute gamesmanship for quality instruction.
Despite widespread dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Congress has been unable to devise a reasonable alternative and so, for now, NCLB remains on the books. There have been many proposals for tinkering with the law’s provisions—
extending the deadline for reaching proficiency, measuring progress by the change in scores of the same group of students from one year to the next (instead of comparing scores of this year’s students with scores of those in the same grade in the previous year), adding a few other requirements (like graduation rates or parent satisfaction) to the accountability regime, or standardizing the definitions of proficiency among the states. Yet none of these proposals commands sufficient support because none addresses NCLB’s most fundamental problem: although tests, properly interpreted, can contribute some important information about school quality, testing alone is a poor way to measure whether schools, or their students, perform adequately.
Perhaps the most important reason why NCLB, and similar testing systems in the states, got accountability so wrong is that we’ve wanted to do accountability on the cheap. Standardized tests that assess only low-level skills and that can be scored electronically cost very little to administer—although their hidden costs are enormous in the lost opportunities to develop young people’s broader knowledge, traits, and skills.
The fact is, schools have an important but not exclusive influence on student achievement; the gap in performance between schools with advantaged children and schools with disadvantaged children is due in large part to differences in the social and economic conditions from which the children come.1 For this reason, schools can best improve youth outcomes if they are part of an integrated system of youth development and family support services that also includes, at a minimum, high-quality early childhood care, health services, and after-school and summer programs. An accountability system should be designed to ensure that all public institutions make appropriate contributions to youth development. When schools are integrated with supporting services, they can substantially narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged and middle-class children.
A successful accountability system, such as the one we will propose in this article (and which we more fully explain in our book, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right), will initially be more expensive. Our proposal calls for both a sophisticated national assessment of a broad range of outcomes and a corps of professional inspectors in each state who devote the time necessary to determine if schools and other institutions of youth development—early childhood programs, and health and social services clinics, for example—are following practices likely to lead to adult success. But while such accountability will be expensive, it is not prohibitively so. Our rough estimate indicates that such accountability could cost up to 1 percent of what we now spend on elementary and secondary education. If we want to do accountability right, and we should, this level of spending is worthwhile.
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