Truth and Consequences

Winston Churchill once defended democracy by calling it, "The worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Perhaps the same can be said for test-based accountability.
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Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wrote a report on accountability that defines the word on the front cover: "The obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform."

Recently, 500 education researchers sent a letter to Congress urging an end to test-based accountability. In its place they offered a few sentences about "fair" and "universal" accountability but nothing concrete about consequences.

Education Historian Diane Ravitch wrote two books critiquing the current wave of reforms. In her latest book she offered a wish list of appealing but expensive and politically difficult ideas: early childhood, wraparound services, smaller classes and racial and economic integration. She, too, said nothing about consequences.

Last summer, AFT President Randi Weingarten and Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond proposed replacing "test and punish" accountability with "support and improve" accountability. They are essentially proposing professional development for struggling teachers and more support for schools but again no real consequences.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia and PTA President Otha Thornton also weighed in with an oped in the Washington Post outlining a multi-indicator dashboard for schools that deemphasizes test scores and is much more focused on resources. Once again, there is no mention of consequences.

In his report, Tucker proposes keeping testing but using "inspectorates" to hold schools accountable and peer pressure to hold teachers accountable. Inspectorates are essentially "experts" from some higher authority, the regional, state or national government. It is the practice in some foreign countries like Britain, where the "consequences" include "naming and shaming." According to Tucker, some foreign inspectors have the authority to close schools but rarely use it.

In his 2008 book, Grading Education, University of California Law Professor Richard Rothstein proposes a complex, multi-layered system that includes tests, inspectorates, and other elements. Based on summaries I have read, there are no clear consequences for schools that fall short. It's also an open question whether taxpayers and educators would support the creation of an empowered new state-level bureaucracy of "experts" to judge schools.

One "expert" is New York City Chancellor Carmen Farina, who recently suggested that she can judge a school's quality just by entering the building. I actually believe her just as I believe an experienced doctor can often diagnose a medical condition at a glance. I have heard other seasoned educators say the same thing and I don't doubt them.

But just as no doctor would commence surgery without a battery of tests, no system of accountability can base "consequences" on gut judgments of educators. Everyone - teachers, parents and administrators -- would revolt and demand objective proof before any real consequences came to pass.

Nevertheless, as a principal, Farina was not afraid of consequences and was well-known for replacing teachers who didn't share her vision and approach. Her boss, Mayor deBlasio also apparently supports "consequences."

In his recent "community" schools announcement to fix 94 chronically low-achieving schools, Mayor deBlasio said, "If we do not see improvement after three years - and after all of these reforms and new resources - we will close any schools that don't measure up. Holding schools accountable is critical - because all of the reform plans in the world will make little difference if there are no consequences for failing."

So now we turn to the debate in Congress and the question of whether the federal government should specify consequences for chronically under-performing schools. Key Republicans in both chambers are determined to roll back the federal role to testing and transparency and allowing states to define and enforce accountability however they please.

With anti-Washington sentiment running pretty high, the GOP proposals have the virtue of being politically popular, but that's pretty much where the virtues end. There is no evidence that states and districts will consistently enforce accountability and protect children at risk. Absent federal mandates, accountability will vary wildly and in many cases, cease altogether unless parents organically unite to demand consequences for under-performance. While ideal, it is unlikely.

Which brings us back to the current system of test-based accountability. For the approximate cost of about $30 per student, the federal government requires every state to administer one test in reading and one in math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The feds also require three science tests, once in elementary, middle and high school. That's a grand total of 17 tests during a child's entire K-12 career at an annual cost of about $1.7 billion, a drop in the bucket in a $600 billion system.

Beyond that, the feds require a series of actions based on the number of years schools and districts fall short of performance targets. Under the current administration, those targets have been relaxed at the request of state educators but the essence of the policy remains: testing and transparency for all students and interventions for schools that fall short -- truth and consequences.

If rising grad rates and test scores are any indication, the policy has worked pretty well, though it has triggered unintended outcomes from over-testing and excessive test prep to narrowing of the curriculum. We need to work together to reduce both and new assessments should help bring about those goals.

Still, is there a responsible, practical alternative that protects all kids and drives improvement? Every other proposal requires a lot more resources with, at best, undefined consequences.

Winston Churchill once defended democracy by calling it, "The worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Perhaps the same can be said for test-based accountability.

Peter Cunningham is Executive Director of Education Post, a non-partisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education from preschool to high school graduation. He is a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. He served in the Obama administration.

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