Tuesday, October 09, 2007

NCLB and High Stakes Testing: The Flim Behind the Flam

A friend sent this link today. It’s a New York Times Op/Ed piece which does two things: 1) it underlines the failings of No Child Left Behind just as congress takes up the reauthorization of same, 2) it refers to a Fordham Institute study that you can read online. It has analysis specific to Texas and how Texas’s testing expectations rate next to those of 25 other states.

The Op/Ed piece was written by Bob Herbert, but the opinions are those Harvard of School of Education professor Daniel Koretz. Koretz’ opinions are more analytical than the Fordham study. Koretz draws conclusions from the study. Conclusions that everyone already suspected, but up to now were unproven.

In a nutshell: here is why Bush’s NCLB isn’t doing what it was supposed to do, and why it is actually damaging education in America.

It was designed to make schools accountable for the education of the children. To do that schools are rated by student performance on standardized tests, in Texas, this is the TAKS test. The thought was according to Koretz, was that by having schools all give the same test, this provides an incentive for schools, administrators and teachers to work harder and give their students a better education. A viewpoint that holds little reality.

This is what actually happened:

“The problem is that you can raise scores the hard way by teaching more effectively and getting the students to work harder, or you can take shortcuts and start figuring out ways, as Dr. Koretz put it, to ‘game’ the system”.
"Gaming the system" occurs at all levels. It is done at the instructional level by teaching only TAKS objectives, and drilling only on those to the exclusion of other areas of the curriculum as well as enrichment activities that might actually help a student understand something. It is done at the administrative level by encouraging these teaching practices. It is done at the legislative and district level by voting for incredibly stupid “teacher incentive pay” packages to reward teachers whose students improve on their test scores. It leads to poorer teaching as in the above. It’s done at the state school board level by leaving it to the states what constitutes “proficient” and whether or not to adjust what is proficient from one year to the next to improve performance figures.

Yes, it is left to each individual state to decide what level of performance is considered proficient. That’s like leaving it up to each state how much a dollar will buy.

This last bit is like adding insult to injury. There is no consistent national rating system of proficiency even though NCLB is a federal program. The Fordham Institute Study, aptly entitled The Proficiency Illusion, exposes this in their 26-state study that compared the proficiency ratings of each state against a national standard, finding wide variation from one state to another. Texas, to no one’s surprise, has proficiency below the median – that is, proficiency expectations are low in Texas as opposed to other states. This is especially true in the lower grades where Texas’ mastery level is below the median of the entire 26-state population. This is especially true in reading expectations in 3rd and 6th grades. Math expectations are higher and most grades approach the median - but are still lower. However, while most states have been adjusting their proficiency expectations downward from one year to the next, Texas has been raising expectations. This was engineered from the beginning to have a gradual rise in mastery levels as students and educators got used to a new text.

So eventually, if this madness continues, the median will fall and other states will have the same proficiency expectations as Texas.

The time has come to take a hard look at the data coming out now, and finally decide if high stakes testing including Texas’s new EOC system, is really going to serve us. If in the end, it all comes down to cooking the books and punishing the schools and teachers who are too slow on the uptake about how to cut corners, then maybe it’s time to rethink this.

I have a humble Half Empty suggestion. Instead of posting expectations, then testing whether students achieve those expectations (followed by rewarding the guilty and punishing the innocent) wouldn’t it be nice if schools could attract talented, motivated educators through

Incentives like a living wage and benefits that are meaningful

Respect from the community and administration

Real support from the above

Real investment in the school infrastructure including technology

A peer review system where teachers evaluate other teachers.

Allowing teachers time to confer with other teachers rather than baby sit students in a study hall or during lunch. We hire crossing guards, don’t we?

What are the chances that these things (any one of them) will happen? I am characteristically pessimistic.


Anonymous said...

There is a brief response to "The Proficiency Illusion" available on the web at http://www.bdsphd.zoomshare.com/ You might find it interesting.

Tom Hanson said...

I found the most interesting aspect of the entire discussion the comments of Michael Petrelli, the VP for policy at Fordham, regarding math scores. Even though math tests are harder. the scores are improving. And that comes as no surprise to Petrelli. See


Tom Hanson

Hal said...

Yeah, anonymous.



Where's the analysis?

Seems to me there is still money to be made in NCLB and ranks are closing.

Find another way to make money off the back of our failing children. How about telemarketing?