Standards, Testing & Accountability

The June issue of The American Spectator carries a thoughtful--though ultimately unpersuasive--article by Lewis Andrews, "Meet the Suburban Parents." Like legions of activists and analysts before him, he ponders why upper-middle-class parents haven't rallied to the cause of school reform.

Suburban parents have always been ready to mob a school board meeting to agitate for improved athletic facilities, but never for teacher evaluations or merit pay. The PTA will mobilize families and schools to support the most controversial social movements, from gay rights and gun control to affirmative action and costly accommodations for the disabled, but not a peep about the pressing need to save urban children from failing schools.

In places like Marin County north of San Francisco, Fairfax County in Virginia, the affluent suburbs north of Chicago, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, even very modest reforms that could save taxpayers money while improving the quality of education--giving credit for courses taken at community college or online, for example--are either ignored or downplayed.

It's a provocative argument, and a worthy topic. But Andrews, like most of us in the education commentariat, isn't careful enough to keep two very different issues distinct: First, whether affluent parents should be satisfied with the public schools to which they send their own children. And second, whether those same parents can be energized to fight on behalf of school reform for the poor.

The second question, it seems to me, will soon be answered by Michelle Rhee's new endeavor, Students First....

There are no knock-out punches in this fight, but David Brooks comes close with a perspective-setting essay about school reformers and their adversaries. ?Appropriately, he takes out after Diane Ravitch, the reform movement's loudest and most visible critic (see Dana Goldstein's recent profile and Liam's caveat) who, says Brooks, ?has come to adopt the party-line view of the most change-averse elements of the teachers' unions: There is no education crisis. Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. We don't need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security.?

I wish Brooks had spent more time exploring the difficulty these change-averse educators have in trying to argue that they should be paid more for doing something they claim is impossible to do (i.e., improve schools), but I'll settle for Brooks' wonderful exposition of why testing is such a bogus issue.

The only schools that are ?distorted by testing,? Brooks argues, are bad schools,? "the schools the reformers haven't touched.?

Brooks manages to work in references to a host of change agents and academics ? Whitney Tilson, KIPP, E.D. Hirsch, Caroline Hoxby ? to make his case.? And he concludes with this simple truth: ?If your school teaches to the test, it's not the test's fault. It's the leaders of your school.?

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

Here's a quick test; true or false?

1. Arne Duncan coerced many states into adopting the Common Core via his Race to the Top application.

2. The Obama Administration carelessly hinted that adoption of Common Core might become a requirement in a new ESEA or for states wanting a waiver from the current law.

3. Most states are free to back out of Common Core at any time, yet none have.

The answers: true, true, true!

The reason I bring this up is two-fold. First, several conservatives, perplexed by Jeb Bush's continued support for the Common Core, keep making the case that the standards aren't voluntary. And if they mean that some states adopted the standards because of federal pressure, they are right. But second, I bring it up because we are days away from the end of the 2011 state legislative session, and to my knowledge, not a single law was enacted to block a state from participating in Common Core. Yet, save for the Race to the Top winners--and the handful that might be contenders for the "round three" money this year--all of the states are free to opt out at any time, without consequence. That means, by my count, about 25 states that have chosen to stay involved in Common Core even though they don't have to. This after an election that brought 600 new seats for the Republican Party.

So are these states participating voluntarily? I'd say...

I stewed most of the week about how to respond to Deborah Meier's recent Bridging Differences post on ?college for all.?? She's against it, of course. She thinks the movement is another piece of the right-wing, high-stakes testing, corporate behemoth conspiracy.? And I had a high-brow response almost ready to go (see College for All, Please! Part 2, coming soon) ? until yesterday morning, when I picked up my New York Times and read (in the new ?Sunday Review? section) David Leonhardt's masterful KO of the silly notion that we shouldn't encourage kids to go to college: Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off. As Whitney Tilson would say Stop the Presses!!!? ?The graphics alone (compiled from the Center on Education and the Work Force at Georgetown) should take your breath away:

  • A dishwasher with a college degree earns 83% more than a dishwasher with no college
  • A cashier with a college degree, 56% more
  • A plumber, 39%


Writes Leonhardt:

The most unfortunate part of the case against college is that it encourages children, parents and schools to aim low.

Why should we even be arguing about this?

Leonhardt quotes David Autor, an M.I.T. economist, saying rather bluntly, ?Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea?. Not sending them to college would be a disaster.?

Unfortunately, that disaster, aided and abetted by smart people like Deborah Meier, is already upon us.? (Full disclosure:? Ms. Meier is a...

I have been an avid follower of Jay Mathews' work since starting here at Fordham, but his recent argument with a Fairfax County parent over Fairfax's decision to get rid of honors courses across the district caused me to panic. (FPCS has three standard tracks:? general, honors and A.P. courses). Their point of contention was Jay's suggestion that the district instead eliminate the general-level classes, calling on the schools to place all students in at least honors courses, giving them the skills needed to read, write and manage time well enough to succeed after high school. At this point my anxiety set in.

From my experience teaching at an under-performing high school in a blue-collar area of Metro-Detroit, I am all-too-familiar with mislabeled classes and the problems they create. The class I taught was an A.P. Government course, the same course I took in high school with a group of top-notch students, over 90% of which took and passed the A.P. Exam. The course I taught, however, looked nothing like what I had previously encountered. The chapter exams were all multiple-choice and the questions (and answers) were given to the students literally word-for-word during the review. Any student putting forth even the slightest amount of effort (you'd be surprised how many didn't) had no problem receiving an ?A? in the class. Yet, less than 10% of the class took the A.P. exam and I can count on one hand the number that passed.


There are two stories in today's New York Times that merit some consideration. One is an essay about a sperm donor and the other is a pop history quiz (sorry, test-haters, it's multiple choice). ?What the two have in common is 12th-grade.? The essay writer, one Colton Wooten, we are told, ?graduated from Leesville Road High School* this month.?? And the Times test is taken from the infamous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) history exam that got so much press this past week (see here and here).

Start with the test. As the headline asks, ?Are You as Smart as a 12th Grader??? Well, my guess is that the average adult American is probably as smart as the average 12th-grader, considering that only 12 percent of the NAEP sample of seniors were proficient in the history test.? But the questions are not easy ? everyone remember what the Ordinance of Nullification was? ? and the test, however golden a standard,? is probably a better measure of the nation's curriculum anarchy than of student knowledge.? (See my post on the national obsession with putting the assessment cart before the curriculum horse.)

Mr. Wooten's essay illustrates a different set of challenges for our schools; most specifically, how do you teach writing?? The young man's op-ed essay is wonderfully constructed and shows a mastery of the topic and of the writing craft that is far more mature than the standard 12th-grade fare I've read.



Note: These were my opening comments during Wednesday's Fordham Institute panel, "Is it Time to Turn the Page on Federal Accountability in Education?" Video of the event is available here.

Let me say at the outset that what I am about to propose is not going to transform America's education system. It won't propel the United States ahead of our international competitors on PISA. It won't eliminate our stubborn achievement gaps. It won't do any of these things because, for better or worse, the federal government is incapable of affecting these kinds of sweeping changes. Not for any ideological reasons, but for structural reasons. Uncle Sam is at least three steps removed from the classroom, and all the carrots and sticks in the world won't allow him to make everything right in our schools. [quote]

The WRONG way to think about federal policy in education is to identify the myriad problems plaguing our schools, and then dream up federal solutions, as if Congress could pass a law and magically things would change in the real world (and without any unintended consequences).

The RIGHT way to think about federal policy is to figure out what Uncle Sam is capable of doing, and then doing that well.

Now, I disagree with some friends on the right, like Jennifer and her colleagues at Heritage, that there is basically NOTHING...

Guest Blogger

The following, by Peter Wehner, originally appeared on the Commentary Magazine blog.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released its 2010 ?report card? on the command of history our fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders have. The results are not encouraging. Over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam. (NAEP defines three achievement levels for each test: ?basic? denotes partial mastery of a subject; ?proficient? represents solid academic performance and a demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter; and ?advanced? means superior performance.)

The tests were given last spring to a representative sample of 7,000 fourth graders, 11,800 eighth graders, and 12,400 12th graders nationwide, with history being one of eight subjects covered by NAEP (the others are math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics). The nation's eighth graders posted gains in American history achievement compared with four years ago, while at the fourth and twelfth grades, we saw no statistically significant changes since 2006.

It turns out history is the worst subject for American students (economics is the best). For examples, most fourth graders are unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and few high school seniors were able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War. Diane Ravitch, an education expert, drew special attention to the low scores for high school seniors....