Much Ado About a Phantom: Education Brouhaha over Test-and-Punish is a State of Mind, Not State of Reality

Much Ado About a Phantom: Education Brouhaha over Test-and-Punish is a State of Mind, Not State of Reality
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RCEd Commentary

In education, virtually nothing is less popular than standardized tests. But for Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten, there is one thing: accountability for standardized tests. And today’s Stanford Center on Opportunity Policy in Education’s “Rethinking Accountability” conference is a megaphone for their call, previewed in The Huffington Post, to shift from NCLB-style “test-and-punish” accountability to a system built on “support-and-improve.”

“Support-and-improve” isn’t a new idea, though, and it doesn’t have the best record. President Clinton’s education policy laid the groundwork for NCLB by requiring states to develop standards and tests, but left out all of its accountability. Yet when fewer than 20 states developed the required tests — let alone the unmentioned accountability part — “support-and-improve” easily became “do-nothing.” And when states and districts actually try to improve their schools, rather than ignore them, it becomes even clearer that no one has figured out how to make schools better, systematically and at-scale. After billions invested in retooled School Improvement Grants since 2010, with more resources and more intensive strategies, many underperforming schools have seen no improvements, and a third declines, under the program. Meanwhile, the research on NCLB-style accountability—with consequences—has found positive effects on student achievement, especially for low-performing students and in math.

But the real kicker isn’t that “support and improve” alone fails to work. It’s that the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” doesn’t exist. At least not right now. Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.

That’s because states are in the middle of transitioning to college- and career-ready standards and tests. And in order to allow schools, teachers, and students time to adjust during that transition, the 40+ waiver states don’t have to name low-performing schools next year, or even update their school ratings. In fact, some states don’t have to publicize test results at all (like California), because all students are taking field tests for the new assessments. This accountability moratorium could easily extend beyond 2015 if states choose to make those results a new baseline year (for a closer look at how 5 states are handling the transition, read Victoria Sears’ latest report for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute). And even before hitting pause, waiver states were identifying fewer low-performing schools than under NCLB. In a recent survey of states’ waivers, I found that two-thirds of low-performing schools in the NCLB system were not similarly identified under waivers.

And what about those supposedly high-stakes teacher evaluations? There don’t have to be consequences attached to them right now either. There don’t even have to be systems in place, really, and the U.S. Department of Education has consistently allowed states to delay their development. Confused? Check out this timeline for how quickly the first waiver states must launch their evaluations:

High stakes don’t have to enter the picture until Spring 2017—after Arne Duncan hands over the keys to the next Secretary of Education. Teachers could get two ratings and two rounds of “support and improvement” before any stakes are involved (and even then, federal leverage is limited in terms of how much evaluations must inform personnel decisions). And don’t forget, the Department has also let states apply for an extra year to use evaluations to “inform” those decisions. That delays full implementation until as late as Spring 2018. Simply, the debate over whether there should be consequences for teachers during the transition to new assessments often obscures the fact that a no-stakes period is already standard federal policy. And now that the Department is relaxing its review process for extending the waivers, they could be opening the door to even more delays—a move that would be welcomed by many, including Darling-Hammond and Weingarten.

In short, if educators or local officials feel like today’s accountability systems “test and punish” them, it’s got much more to do with their responses to federal accountability, not the policy itself. In the transition to new standards and tests, states have tried to be sensible and already halted many of the consequences. If NCLB is a zombie, then “test-and-punish” accountability is a ghost: you might think you see it, and you might be afraid of it, but turn on the light, and you’ll find it just isn’t there. 

What’s more, most education reformers, on the right and left, can find common ground with Darling-Hammond and Weingarten: nobody thinks that we don’t need a better, smarter approach to improving school and teacher practice. And states have been able to try new “support-and-improve” approaches in their waivers. Kentucky has a school-led program review as 20 percent of its accountability model—a more holistic, educator-driven take on the quality of local curricula and practice. And California’s district-level waiver relies on teams of educators from high-performing schools to lead and advise school improvement, with a similar approach planned statewide. While it’s far from certain that these approaches will work better than previous improvement efforts, today’s federal accountability regime is in no way incompatible with a “support-and-improve” model. The key difference is that, unlike Darling-Hammond and Weingarten, most reformers also believe schools can—and should—do all of these things in tandem with meaningful accountability systems.

What is incompatible with the support-and-improve mindset is the choices of some elected officials, school administrators, and educators. If drill-and-kill, or weeks of rote test prep, or a testing week “pep rally” is the best you can come up with in response to a system of accountability, then something went terribly wrong, and it isn’t the test. It’s how schools and districts are choosing to react to it. It may not be as easy to implement, or as cheap, but there are alternatives that don’t sacrifice high-quality, rich instruction at the altar of test-based accountability. These alternatives may require building professional capacity, training teachers and leaders differently, and providing new resources and time, but there are other choices. And making these choices more popular will require tackling education challenges—often beyond the scope of accountability policy—head-on, from teacher preparation to school leadership.

Accountability systems under NCLB waivers aren’t perfect, and we must continue to refine their design and execution. But they aren’t responsible for the test-and-punish culture at work in far too many schools and districts. What really warrants a transformation isn’t accountability… it’s our response to it.

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