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Grading Education: Rothstein is Just in Time

By Anthony Cody — March 30, 2009 2 min read

Former New York Times columnist Richard Rothstein has published a powerful book at a critical moment. We find ourselves poised on the brink of change, but just at this moment, we seem to be wavering. In my view, No Child Left Behind was a dismal failure. Nonetheless as we go forward some leaders seem bound and determined to preserve many of its most destructive elements. In Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, Rothstein has come along just in time to remind us what we should be focused on.

First, let’s remember why we educate. For this, Rothstein recalls that Franklin, Washington and Jefferson all saw enlightened citizenship as a central goal of education. He reviews a range of educational initiatives over the past 250 years, and arrives at eight key outcomes that emerge. These are:
Basic academic skills and knowledge
Critical thinking and problem solving
Appreciation of the arts and literature
Preparation for skilled employment
Social skills and work ethic
Citizenship and community responsibility
Physical health
Emotional health

If we can agree that all of these goals are important, then we arrive at the first problem with our current accountability system. It is focused almost entirely on academic skills and knowledge and even that is primarily in the areas of reading and math. Rothstein points out that when we reward one set of outcomes above others, unrewarded outcomes suffer. I see this firsthand in the poorer elementary schools in my district, where many teachers report they lack instructional time for science because of the pressure to boost reading and math.

Rothstein next treats us to a tour of the perverse results inherent in test-driven accountability. Tests lack the reliability needed to draw the high stakes conclusions for which they are used. This is important enough to warrant a quote:

If we hope to use tests for school or teacher accountability, we might be tempted to ignore the unreliability of any single student’s score and assume that some students’ good days would offset other students’ bad days; then, the average results for an entire grade or class would be accurate, a fair indication of schools’ and teachers’ effectiveness even if individual student scores could not provide such an indication. In any survey or assessment, the larger the number of students tested, the more likely it is that erratic scores will cancel each other out in an average. But as it turns out, most schools are too small to support statistical confidence that childrens’ good and bad days will average out with a single test.

He goes on to point out that the use of racial and economic subgroups makes the sample sizes even smaller, and thus even less reliable. Honest statisticians account for this uncertainty with a margin of error. However, in these cases, the margin of error is usually larger than the difference between a school that is labeled failing and one that has met its growth targets. So the lawmakers simply ignore the inaccuracy and use the data as they will. I experienced this injustice first-hand at the middle school where I taught for 18 years, which was labeled a failure in spite of substantial growth, due to subgroups not all growing at the same rate. (see my earlier post here.)

Rothstein is at his most moving when he addresses the goal that “all students will be proficient by 2014.” He writes:

Inadequate schools are only one reason disadvantaged children perform poorly. They come to school under stress from high-crime neighborhoods and economically insecure households. Their low-cost day-care tends to park them before televisions, rather than provide opportunities for developmentally appropriate play. They switch schools more often because of inadequate housing and rents rising faster than parents' wages. They have greater health problems, some (like lead poisoning or iron-deficiency anemia) directly depressing cognitive ability, and some causing more absenteeism or inattentiveness. Their households include fewer college-educated adults to provide rich intellectual environments, and their parents are less likely to expect academic success. Nearly 15 percent of the black-white test-score gap can be traced to differences in housing mobility, and 25 percent to differences in child- and maternal-health.
Yet contemporary test-based accountability policies that establish the goal of all students being proficient require that school improvement alone -- higher expectations, better teachers, improved curriculum, and more testing -- should raise all children to high levels of achievement, poised for college and professional success. Natural human variability would still distinguish children, but these distinctions would have nothing to do with family disadvantage. If true, there really would be no reason for progressive housing or health and economic policies. The nation's social and economic problems would take care of themselves, by the next generation.
Teachers of children who come to school hungry, scared, abused, or ill, consider this absurd. But increasingly, in our test-based accountability environment, pronouncements of politicians and some educational leaders intimidate teachers from acknowledging the obvious. Instead, teachers are expected to repeat the mantra "all children can learn," a truth carrying the false implication that the level to which children learn has nothing to do with their starting points. Teachers are warned that any mention of children's socioeconomic disadvantages only "makes excuses" for teachers' own poor performance.
Of course, there are better and worse schools and better and worse teachers. Of course, some disadvantaged children excel more than others. But our federal and state test-based accountability policies, anchored to the demand for a single standard of proficiency for all students, regardless of background, have turned these obvious truths into the fantasy that teachers can wipe out socioeconomic differences among children simply by trying harder.
Denouncing schools as the chief cause of American inequality -- in academic achievement, thus in the labor market, and thus in life generally -- stimulates cynicism among teachers who are expected to act on a theory they know to be false. Many dedicated and talented teachers are abandoning education; they may have achieved exceptional results with disadvantaged children, but with state and federal proficiency bars set so impossibly high, even these teachers are labeled failures.
The continuation of the rhetoric of test-based accountability will also erode support for public education. Under pressure, educators now publicly vow they can eliminate achievement gaps, but they will inevitably fall short. When these educators then fail to fulfill the impossible expectations they themselves have endorsed, the reasonable conclusion can only be that they and their colleagues in public education are hopelessly incompetent.

But the question remains -- how can schools be held accountable for the outcomes we value? Next week I will explore how Rothstein and his co-authors, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder, have proposed an alternative to the current test-driven approach.

UPDATE: My friend teacherken has just posted an excellent interview with Rothstein, Jacobsen and Wilder on his blog at DailyKos.

What do you think? Do you agree with Rothstein’s list of outcomes? Is his indictment of test-driven accountability well-founded?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.