(by Kenneth J. Bernstein aka teacherken, originally posted at the Daily Kos)
If you send two groups of students to equally high-quality schools, the group with greater socioeconomic disadvantage will necessarily have lower average achievement than the more fortunate group. . .
Low-income children often have no health insurance and therefore no routine preventive medical and dental care, so have more school absences as a result of illness. Children in low-income families are more prone to asthma, resulting in more sleeplessness, irritability, and lack of exercise. They experience lower birth weight as well as more lead poisoning and iron-deficiency anemia, each of which leads to diminished cognitive ability and more behavior problems. Their families frequently fall behind in rent and move, so children switch schools more often, losing continuity of instruction. . .
The words are of Richard Rothstein, formerly the principal education writer of The New York Times, and co-author of an important new book on educational assessment. They come from an interview he and his co-authors recently did. In this diary I will explore the interview as well as offer commentary of my own.
The title of the book is Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right. The cu-authors are Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder, and is co-published by Teacher4s College Press and the Economic Policy Institute. The interview appeared on the website of Education News, which while it is run by someone whose personal orientation towards education is quite different than my own, often provides links for important news about education.
I have not yet read the book. It is in my queue. But I know enough about Rothstein’s work from previous reading, both while he was at the Times and of earlier books, to know the cogency with which he approaches our crises in education. I believe that the interview can stand on its own as an introduction to a different approach about assessment.
Let’s be clear. We have to have assessment that includes some evaluation from outside the classroom or the school – given the amount of tax revenue (the authors say almost 15% of all American taxes) that goes to public education, such assessment for accountability is not only unavoidable, it should be welcomed – if done properly. Our approach under NCLB, however, is not proper, gives us a distorted picture of what is happening, narrows instruction to what is tested, and thus damages the education of the students it purports to help.
All of this has been known in educational circles for years, well before the push to NCLB in the early part of this decade. Let me offer some commentary from the three authors.
Let’s start with Jacobsen:
Our current accountability systems focus narrowly on standardized test scores in reading and mathematics. This test-based accountability system has only resulted in a corruption of the goals of public education. It has created incentives to focus only on reading and math instruction at the expense of other important goals, including not only other academic subjects such as science and social studies, but also other skills which are less easily tested through a paper and pencil exam, such as students’ ability work cooperatively in groups, develop a commitment to civic and community responsibility, and develop an appreciation for the arts and literature.
A concern about such narrowing is not new. Rothstein reminds us:
. . . we describe a commission led by Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger that issued a 1958 report denouncing excessive stress on tests of math and reading. The report insisted that “Our conception of excellence must embrace many kinds of achievement at many levels….There is excellence in abstract intellectual activity, in art, in music, in managerial activities, in craftsmanship, in human relations, in technical work.” And the report urged that test scores not be the sole mechanism of school accountability. It said, “Decisions based on test scores must be made with the awareness of the imponderables in human behavior. We cannot measure the rare qualities of character that are a necessary ingredient of great performance. We cannot measure aspiration or purpose. We cannot measure courage, vitality or determination.”
I include this snippet because of the date of the report: in October of 1957 the USSR launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Those old enough to remember will recall the panic it caused, that we were falling behind a rival (at that time a military rival) and we had to respond. This lead to a heavy emphasis on science at math. The report presented cautions that unfortunately were not taken seriously. If one sees parallels with, say, A Nation at Risk in 1983, with fears of falling behind economically, or current pushes seemingly demanding more emphasis on math and science, you are not alone.
The authors do not totally reject the idea that one important function of public education is to prepare people to be productive in the workforce – after all, remember that one co-publisher is the Economic Policy Institute. But that goal cannot be seen in isolation, and we need to be very careful about making major changes in our schools based on economic projections that are tenuous as best. In the paragraph immediately following the one just quoted, Rothstein notes
the work-related skills now required of school graduates are different from those of the 1950s, but also not as different as many people think. In an appendix of Grading Education, we reprint an article I co-authored with Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, in which we showed that, contrary to popular belief, American schools currently produce enough high school and college graduates to fill openings in the technologically advanced jobs of the modern era. Of course, we argue, our schools have an obligation to educate every child to his or her maximum potential, and we are not presently doing so, but we should not use flawed economic projections as a basis for denouncing the performance of our public schools.
Jacobsen recites the goals that education should include:
Throughout history, American leaders have generally agreed that schools should assist students in developing knowledge and skills in a broad range of goal areas, including: 1) basic academic knowledge and skills; 2) critical thinking; 3) appreciation for the arts and literature; 4) preparation for skilled work; 5) social skills and work ethic; 6) citizenship and community responsibility; 7) physical health; 8) emotional health.
and notes when they authors surveyed a representative group of educational leaders and the public, they found that
while teaching basic academic skills is important, it is not so much more important that we should be satisfied if other goals were sacrificed. Consequently, in Grading Education, we propose an accountability system in which schools would be held accountable for student achievement in all of these eight areas. Only with such an accountability system, can we avoid the goal distortion that results from accountability only for a few basic skills. Our proposals include an expanded federal data collection system, covering both standardized tests and performance assessments.
Ironically, there is a U. S. precedent for such an approach in the early development of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP):
Unlike today’s NAEP exam which is almost exclusively a paper and pencil exam, early NAEP also collected data using survey and interview questions, and observations of student behaviors. With the exception of the arts and music exam in 1997, however, such performance assessments were eliminated by the federal government in the
The authors note that previously NAEP required things such as writing a letter of application in response to a help-wanted ad, or how they would respond if they saw a park attendant acting in a racially discriminatory fashion or evaluating the calorie consequences of food choices – think how important a real world skill the last is at a time when our childhood obesity is exploding, with concomitant pressures on health and medical costs, as well as time lost from school and from work.
Currently NAEP, which is still the best standard by which to compare the results among NAEP, has the unfortunate result of downgrading US performance because of how it sets its proficiency levels. As Wilder notes of the Lake Wobegon demand that all children be proficient as measured by some state established standard and cross-checked by NAEP),
the law does demand that all students in each state pass a single challenging standard. This guideline comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) definition of proficiency as “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.” However, there are no countries in the world, even the highest performing countries, in which all students are able to reach a challenging standard. In Grading Education we demonstrate this fact by predicting how students in Korea and Singapore—the top scoring countries on international math assessments— would score on the United States’ NAEP. We found that over 25 percent of students in Singapore and Korea would score below the 8th grade NAEP proficiency cut score in math. It is impossible for all U.S. students to reach a challenging level of proficiency by 2014 or by any year.One standard cannot be challenging to most and achievable by all.
The authors recommend an assessment program that, while still including tests and other quantitative measures, would also include the qualitative data that comes from expert evaluation
…expert evaluations of schools and student work, conducted on a regular cycle. Even the most sophisticated test questions are not fully adequate to reveal students’ abilities. Therefore, mandatory school evaluations should be conducted by professional inspectors to inform the public about how well schools are progressing towards the eight goals described above. Inspectors should observe lessons in every classroom, meet with members of the school community, shadow students selected at random and observe daily school and classroom practices. Observations would enable inspectors to make concrete recommendations based on their expert knowledge, and subsequent inspections could evaluate a school’s progress in addressing areas identified as in need of improvement. Schools deemed in need of great improvement should be visited more frequently and schools meeting or exceeding standards could be visited less often. The
reports of inspectors should be made available to the public, and if schools repeatedly fail to make the necessary changes to ensure student progress towards the multiple goals of public education, states should intervene and replace inadequate administrators and
Here I can speak from some experience. Maryland schools get reaccredited by a process of evaluation that includes visits from teams of educators sent out by our region, Middle States. Every teacher is observed at least twice, by two different educators with some degree of experience in the content. The building is evaluated physically, the school climate is assessed. Non-teachers are interviewed. But all of this takes place AFTER the school has engaged in a year-long process of self-evaluation, a process that includes defining a clear philosophy and set of goals, and evaluating the relationship between school and the larger community, recognizing that the education of students is not limited to what happens within the walls of our classrooms and schools. I have in the past serve as chairman of the committee that dealt with our school’s philosophy and goals and am slated to do so as we begin the process again this coming fall. Like the process of National Board Certification, where the candidate is required to examine in detail his/her teaching in light of primary goal of serving the needs of the students, this process requires a great deal of honest self-reflection. High and/or improving scores on external tests is considered insufficient. As Wilder notes, such an approach is already used elsewhere in the world:
Other countries have long known of the goal distortion that occurs when educational institutions are held accountable for only some of their many goals. Employing this knowledge in their accountability policies, many countries including England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, the Czech Republic, Portugal, and France depend upon a system of school inspections that includes student test scores as only one indicator of performance for holding schools accountable. Although the specifics of school inspections differ from country to country, the principles are the same: employ trained professionals to visit schools to assess if their practices—curriculum, instruction, facilities, leadership, materials, etc.—are likely to graduate students who will become successful, productive citizens. In cases where inspection demonstrates deficiencies in a school’s practices, the responsible national or local agencies intervene to improve the school’s methods.
The entire interview is worth reading. What the authors offer is something far more useful than the kind of narrow focus on tests that has been consuming our educational policy for the past 8 years. The detrimental affects of such an approach should have been anticipated, given what we know about fields other than education:
For example, police commanders have sometimes given police officers ticket quotas in an attempt to ensure that policemen work effectively. Policemen respond to such quotas by issuing more traffic tickets, but this has resulted in police ignoring other important responsibilities that are more difficult to measure, such as prevention of crime by community policing. When medical services have been held accountable, for example, for easily measured reductions in infant mortality, these services may achieve such reductions by shifting resources to hospital obstetric services and away from prenatal care for pregnant women. The services reduce mortality but then have higher proportions of low birthweight and seriously disabled births, because prenatal care was de-emphasized.
I urge you to read and ponder the entire interview. Even before you read the book, you will begin to be prepared to respond to those people who insist a test-based approach to accountability is the only possible solution. We do need to make changes to our system of public education, but the path we have been following not only has not achieved the goals it ostensibly seeks, it cannot, any more than all children will be proficient by 2014. The authors will help you understand why a different approach is needed. They go further in proposing a path that would be far more effective, if only we could get policy makers to step back and look honestly at ALL of what we know about schools, assessment and evaluation.
(Note: This article was posted on behalf of the the author with direct permission. It originally appeared on the Daily Kos.)