Standards, Testing & Accountability

SAGE Publishing’s recently released reference set  Debating Issues in American Education is a 10-volume deep dive into many of the most salient issues regarding the state of PreK-12 education in the United States today. A stellar roster of contributors appears in each issue, recruited by the editors for their knowledge and insight into the topics at hand.

The ten volumes are:

  • Alternative Schooling & School Choice
  • Curriculum & Instruction
  • Diversity in Schools
  • Religion in Schools
  • School Discipline & Safety
  • School Finance
  • School Governance
  • School Law
  • Standards & Accountability in Schools
  • Technology in Schools

Within each volume, a dozen or more specific questions are put forward and argued in point/counterpoint essays by contributing authors. The variety of approaches and areas of focus brought to the series by the wide array of authors is a particular strength of the set. I found myself wondering before I sat down to review a volume if interest could be sustained in the topic overall when there were literally hundreds of pages spent on what seems from the outside to be subtle variations in the questions being debated. I found on more than one occasion that what had been meant to...

School closures
School closures are traumatic.
Photo by Thomas Hawk

Secretary Duncan and his team were mobbed the other day by agitated parents and kids protesting the closing of public schools around the land. Though Uncle Sam has no real control over this, it's true that Duncan came to Washington promising to close (or overhaul) a thousand schools a year and, more recently, has been pressing for radical action in the lowest-performing 5 percent—i.e., about 5000 schools. Actual data in this realm are scarce, but NCES reports roughly a thousand closings a year among “regular” public schools (meaning that, in one sense, Duncan's promise is being kept, though not by him), as well as who knows how many charter and private schools that bite the dust. But even if the total is closer to 2000, in a country with 100,000 schools that's just 2 percent a year. Moreover, schools keep opening, too, hundreds of them every year in every sector.

Nobody likes to close schools. Secretary Duncan remarked to the crowd, “I don't know any educator who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to close schools.’” And it’s...

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is regarded as perhaps the most powerful lawmaker in U.S. education policy, will not seek re-election in 2014. While he was an impediment to change—making this good news for reformers—the word on the grapevine about his possible successor is troubling. Namely, there is talk that if Sen. Patty Murray does not take on the role due to her role on the Senate Budget Committee, the next name on the list is—Sen. Bernie Sanders? We shudder to think.

Last week, the Education Department—with nary a nod to Congress or public debate—declared what Mike Petrilli dubbed a “right to wheelchair basketball” via its new “guidance” on the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. While few oppose the desirability of making reasonable accommodations for the disabled in school sports, the guidance, as pointed out by Politics K–12, “goes farther and says that if reasonable accommodations can’t be made, students with disabilities ‘should still have an equal opportunity to receive the benefits of extracurricular activities,’” thus turning “guidance” into a fully fledged unfunded mandate. For more on this debate, check out Mike’s appearance on NPR’s “On Point” show.

In its latest foray into the...

Red Tape
Does red tape really stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs? Or is it a red herring?
Photo by Julia Manzerova

Many proponents of private school choice—both the voucher and tax credit scholarship versions—take for granted that schools won’t (or shouldn’t) participate if government asks too much of them, regulates their practices, requires them to reveal closely held information, or—above all—demands that they be publicly accountable for student achievement. This anxiety is plausible in theory. Part of what’s distinctive and valuable—and often educationally effective—about private schools is their freedom to be different, the fact that they are exempt from most of the heavy regulatory regime that characterizes most of public education. Insofar as they cherish that autonomy, over-regulation by government might well deter them from participating in taxpayer-supported choice programs and thereby block children from benefiting from the education that those private schools offer.

But how big a deal is this concern in the real world? Private schools deciding whether to participate in a voucher or tax credit scholarship program must...

Red Tape or Red Herring?

Many proponents of private school choice—both the voucher and tax credit scholarship versions—take for granted that schools won’t participate (or shouldn’t participate) if government asks too much of them, regulates their practices, requires them to reveal closely held information and—above all—demands that they be publicly accountable for student achievement. A recent Friedman Foundation report, for example, bemoaned testing requirements that “may force all participating schools to move in the direction of a single, monopolistic curriculum and pedagogy...” And analysts at the Cato Institute went so far as to send letters to Indiana private schools urging them not to participate in the state’s new voucher program, which it called a “strategic defeat” for school reform, in part because of its testing and transparency requirements.

But is this assumption justified? It’s surely plausible on paper. Part of what’s distinctive and valuable—and often educationally effective—about private schools is their autonomy, their freedom to be different, their escape from the heavy regulatory regime that characterizes most of public education. Insofar as...

and Sy Doan

Do regulations and accountability requirements deter private schools from participating in choice programs? How important are such requirements compared to other factors, such as voucher amounts? Are certain types of regulations stronger deterrents than others? Do certain types of schools shy away from regulation more than others? All of this matters, because if private schools decide not to participate, private school choice programs become unworkable.

Chart 1

It turns out that private schools are not vehemently opposed to academic accountability (including state testing and reporting requirements), according to a new Fordham report out today.

Authored by David Stuit and Sy Doan of Basis Policy Research, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? found that testing and reporting requirements ranked among the least important considerations for school leaders, with just 25 percent citing state assessment rules as very important when deciding whether or not to participate (and only 17 percent said the same about public reporting of testing results).

While 3 percent of non-participating schools cited governmental regulations as...

Red Tape or Red Herring?

Will private schools avoid voucher and tax credit scholarship programs if they’re overregulated? Many friends of private school choice insist that they will, particularly if these schools are required to participate in testing and accountability mandates. But the findings from a new study released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute indicate these friends might need an intervention.

In their report, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring?, researchers David Stuit and Sy Doan find little evidence that policymakers should avoid testing requirements for fear that private schools will avoid voucher and tax credit scholarship programs altogether. In fact, in a survey of school leaders who qualify for four existing private school choice programs, just 25 percent said that state assessment rules figured “very importantly” into their decision on whether to participate.

Of greater concern to these school leaders were laws that forced them to revise their admissions criteria or restricted their religious practices, indicating that private schools were allergic to policies that made...

The MAP is exactly the type of "good" assessment that many educators claim to favor
Photo by albertogp123.

Shame on the teachers of Garfield High. Shame on them for resisting a modicum of personal responsibility for student learning. Shame on them for obfuscating what their resistance is really about. And double-shame on them for likening their selfish crusade to the noble acts of resistance of the Civil Rights era.

As you probably know, the teachers of Seattle’s Garfield High School are “boycotting” the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment, which is required by the district. Ostensibly, their protest is about the overuse of tests, the instructional time that those tests devour, and the culture of soulless data-driven instruction that animates today’s brand of school reform.

Yet it’s hard to square their complaints with the actual test they decry, for the MAP is precisely the type of “good” assessment that many educators claim to favor. It’s instructionally useful; it provides instantaneous feedback to teachers and students alike; and it’s...

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama mentioned two pieces of his K–12 policy agenda: his plans to train new math and science teachers and his plans to improve school safety. Politics K–12 notes that inaugural addresses are not typically policy-laden, so one can fairly infer that these two items top his second-term to-do list. In this week’s Education Gadfly Show, Mike Petrilli—self-professed “koala dad”—expresses unease over placing STEM education on a pedestal over all other subjects.

Last Friday, a federal appeals court upheld Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s public-sector-union reforms in full, rejecting the unions’ charges that the law violated the Equal Protection clause and the First Amendment. But according to the School Law blog, the practical effect of the ruling is “unclear” due to litigation in a separate state court. We will be watching.

A fresh batch of federal data shows that the U.S. public high school graduation rate rose to 78.2 percent in 2010—a thirty-five-year high. But before you bake Arne Duncan a cake and sing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow,” be sure to listen to this week’s Education Gadfly Show for a wee slice of humble pie....