Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Amy Fagan

Well, well, well. Looks like our Mike Petrilli is unstoppable. This week he burst onto the scene in the land of cheese and football. The land of the Green Bay Packers! That's right. Mike wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette. He didn't exactly mince words though ??? he criticized Wisconsin for having ???some of the easiest tests in the country??? and for ???playing games??? with the implementation of No Child Left Behind. Hmmm??????.well, at least he didn't botch the name of their football field!

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Over the past five years, the number of students taking at least one Advanced Placement exam rose by more than half. This news is celebrated but is there a downside? To find out, Fordham commissioned the Farkas Duffett Research Group to survey AP teachers in the US. The AP program remains popular with its teachers. But there are signs that the move toward "open door" access to AP is starting to cause concern.
Voucher opponents often argue that it's unfair to hold public schools accountable for results under the No Child Left Behind Act and various state rules while allowing private schools that participate in school voucher programs to receive taxpayer dollars without similar accountability. In pursuit of a reasonable middle ground, we sought the advice of twenty experts in the school-choice world. This paper presents their thoughts and opinions, as well as Fordham's own ideas.
In this study of the No Child Left Behind Act system and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rules for 28 states, we selected 36 real schools that vary by size, achievement, diversity, etc. and determined which ones would or would not make AYP when evaluated under each state's accountability rules. If a school that made AYP in Washington were relocated to Ohio, would it still make AYP?
As Gov. Ted Strickland concludes his 12-city "Conversation on Education" tour to gather ideas for reforming public education in Ohio, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has put forth a report of five recommendations designed to keep improvements in the Buckeye State's public schools on track toward three critical goals: 1) maximizing the talents of every child; 2) producing graduates as good as any in the world; and 3) closing the persistent academic gaps that continue between rich and poor, and black and white and brown.
Beginning in August 2008, Ohio's academic accountability system includes a value-added component that measures student academic progress in addition to achievement. Fordham created this short primer on value-added to help business people, lawmakers, policymakers, and others understand this powerful but complex tool.

The Mississippi Board of Education wants superintendents to be held accountable for student learning, the Clarion-Ledger reports. Supes in underperforming districts would be removed after two years, even if they were elected by the public. (Yes, some southern states still elect local superintendents.) Unfortunately voters don't appear to put student achievement high on their priority lists when voting for education officials--at least in the case of school boards--so this tonic is more than appropriate. Fair is fair: if educators are to be held accountable, their bosses should be too.

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Mike, I agree that holding superintendents accountable for the performance of their schools is entirely appropriate, but as with any new law, the devil will prove to be in the details. The Commercial Dispatch reports that school performance will be based on the state's accountability system; that's not terribly encouraging in a state that earned a D+ from Fordham for its state standards. And what about a superintendent whose district shows great improvement for two straight years, yet still rates "underperforming"? The proposed law appears to be a blunt instrument applied to a complicated problem, especially considering that two years is barely time to implement changes, much less see the results show up in testing. Finally, we can't forget that superintendent turnover is already a problem, with the average tenure lasting just a handful of years, and that should give us education reformers pause: change is hard to sustain without consistent leadership. Let's hope this law works as intended, weeding out those superintendents who do little to help kids, and that it doesn't exacerbate the leadership shortage found in too many school systems today.

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Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First is an in-depth and alarming study of Reading First's betrayal. Under the leadership of White House domestic policy chief Margaret Spellings and with support from Congress, Reading First was to provide funding to primary-reading programs that were based on scientific research. Backlash and brouhaha followed. Aggrieved whole-language program proprietors complained bitterly that their wares couldn't be purchased with Reading First funds. Then the administration turned its back on Reading First, allowing the program to be gutted and starved of funding.

David Hoff reports that Senators Clinton and Obama are calling for new kinds of tests under No Child Left Behind. Obama has more steak to Hillary's sizzle on this one, saying in his education plan that he will support "funds for states to implement a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students' abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas. These assessments will provide immediate feedback so that teachers can begin improving student learning right away."

In fact, that might be too much detail. How is an assessment going to measure all of those worthy attributes while also providing feedback to teachers immediately? This isn't just hope-mongering, it's decision-blurring. Either you can provide feedback quickly, but have to stick to easy-to-measure things like reading skills, or you can offer information about critical thinking and the rest, but have to wait for real people to score the tests. (Unless you're comfortable with this Third Way solution.) It's a multiple choice test, Senators, and you can only choose one answer.

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