Standards, Testing, & Accountability

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 voucher programs to receive taxpayer dollars without similar accountability.

We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute don't entirely buy that argument but we also believe there's room for a reasonable middle ground. It's time for the school-voucher movement to embrace accountability done right, just as most of the charter-school movement has done. But it's also vital to preserve the capacity of private schools to be different and not to deter them from taking children who would benefit.

In pursuit of that 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.

The majority of experts agree that participating private schools should not face new regulation of their day-to-day affairs. They also see value in helping parents make informed choices by providing data about how well their own children are performing.

However, experts are not of one mind when it comes to making academic results and financial audits transparent. Some would "let the market rule" and are averse to transparency or accountability around school-level results. Others would "treat private schools like charter schools" when it comes to testing, financial transparency, etc. Some would also like government (or its proxy) to intervene if individual schools aren't performing adequately.

We suggest a "sliding scale" approach...

This study examines the No Child Left Behind Act system and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rules for 28 states. We selected 36 real schools (half elementary, half middle) that vary by size, achievement, diversity, etc. and determined which of them 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 Wisconsin or Ohio, would that same school make AYP there? Based on this analysis, we can see how AYP varies across the country and evaluate the effectiveness of NCLB.

Compare data from the 28 states in our study. Click here for the full-size map.

State Reports

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 Arizona
California
Colorado
Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Idaho
Illinois
Indiana
Kansas

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.

The five recommendations include:

  1. Creating world-class standards and stronger accountability mechanisms. 
  2. Ensure that funding is fairly allocated among all children and schools. 
  3. Recruit the best and brightest to lead schools and empower them to succeed. 
  4. Improve teacher quality. 
  5. Expand the quality of, and access to, a range of high-performing school options.

    The report offers relevant examples of the best practices and thinking from across the nation and world as well as within the state of Ohio. These recommendations were developed on the basis of the work over the past decade of many organizations, including Achieve, McKinsey & Co., the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Center on Education and the Economy, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Ohio's State Board of Education and Department of Education. ...

    Since the piloting of value-added progress measures by the Ohio Department of Education in 2007, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have repeatedly been asked by business people, journalists, philanthropists, educators, and others to explain "value-added" and what it means for schools and children.  In order to help answer this question and others--such as "How is it used?" "Should it replace standards-based assessments?" and "Is it a fairer measurer of school performance?"--we volunteered to produce a short primer to help non-specialists understand the basics of "value-added" in Ohio.

    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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    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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    Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, by Sol Stern, is an in-depth and alarming study of Reading First's betrayal.

    President Bush vowed he would "leave no child behind." The centerpiece of his education agenda was Reading First, a new federal program aimed at helping poor children acquire basic reading skills. Under the leadership of White House domestic policy chief Margaret Spellings (then LaMontagne) and with support from Congress, Reading First was to provide funding to primary-reading programs that were based on scientific research. Christopher Doherty became Reading First's new director. His job was to ensure that Reading First schools used only programs that work and shunned those that don't.

    Backlash and brouhaha followed. Aggrieved whole-language program proprietors complained bitterly that their wares couldn't be purchased with Reading First funds. They found a receptive ear in the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a bastion of green eyeshade and Dragnet types who weren't the least bit interested in children learning to read. The OIG launched a witch hunt against Doherty, falsely claiming that he was improperly favoring particular publishers. Despite the lack of evidence and the fact that Doherty was acting with the full knowledge and support of Margaret Spellings, this conscientious and hard-working public servant was forced to resign. Then the administration turned its back on Reading First, allowing the program to be gutted and starved of funding.

    This report cites the real scandals of Reading First:

    • An influential "progressive" lawmaker, Rep. David Obey,
    • ...

    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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    The Proficiency Illusion" reveals that the tests that states use to measure academic progress under the No Child Left Behind Act are creating a false impression of success, especially in reading and especially in the early grades.

    The report, a collaboration of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association, contains several major findings:

    • States are aiming particularly low when it comes to their expectations for younger children, setting
      elementary students up to fail as they progress through their academic careers.
    • The central flaw in NCLB is that it allows each state to set its own definition of what constitutes "proficiency."
    • By mandating that all students reach "proficiency" by 2014, it tempts states to define proficiency downward.
    • Although there has not been a "race to the bottom," with the majority of states dramatically lowering standards under pressure from NCLB, the report did find a "walk to the middle," as some states with high standards saw their expectations drop toward the middle of the pack.
    • In most states, math tests are consistently more difficult to pass than reading tests.
    • Eighth-grade tests are sharply harder to pass in most states than those in earlier grades (even after taking into account obvious differences in subject-matter complexity and children's academic development).

    As a result, students may be performing worse in reading, and worse in elementary school, than is readily apparent by looking at passing rates on state tests.

    Individual State Reports

    January 8, 2007, is No Child Left Behind's fifth birthday. This isn't just another milestone to be celebrated (or mourned). It also marks the time that the law is due for an update from Congress. But will NCLB be reauthorized on schedule? And what changes are likely? No one knows for sure, but some might be in a better position than others to cast prognostications: the ubiquitous 'Washington insiders.' So we asked for their predictions. While not a 'representative sample' of thousands, these experts do have inside knowledge and bring a variety of perspectives. They span the ideological and political spectrum and work as lobbyists, association leaders, think tank analysts, and scholars.

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