In the Face Of Adversity

States Need Willpower To Make Reform Stick

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Adopting a school accountability system that contains the right mix of standards, assessments, and consequences is a Herculean task for any state legislature. But that may prove to be the easiest part. Often, the real test is getting the public to accept the policies, which often involve dramatic changes in how children are educated and how they're treated when they fail.

And when policymakers themselves get a failing grade, they often beat a hasty retreat. Arkansas lawmakers were besieged by complaints after 80 percent of the state's high school juniors failed the math portion of a new exit exam in 1996. The result? The exit mandate was gone by 1997.

Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina, to name a few, have revised major pieces of their school reform packages, after years of work, in the face of sustained public protest. And Arizona education officials were forced to delay a new high school exit exam by a year after teachers and parents complained that they had not seen the material to be covered by the test, which will be given for the first time this spring to the state's 1998-99 sophomore class.

"I don't think that any state hasn't had to backpedal at least some," says Julie O'Brian, the state services coordinator for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "One of the biggest things that states have faced is public backlash from poor performance on statewide tests." Of course, low test scores are pretty typical when tests are first introduced. And making sure that expectations are realistic can help smooth the transition to a new system.

But low scores often prove symptomatic of deeper problems, such as poor teacher preparation, lack of a strong curriculum, unreliable scoring methods, and weak public outreach. And, like a house built on a shoddy foundation, those shortcomings can topple school reform almost overnight.

Arthur E. Ellis, the state schools chief in Michigan, says lawmakers there would not have spent last year revising the state's fledgling high school proficiency test if it had been better marketed to parents and the public the first time around.

“I’m a lifelong school administrator, and I know what this type of program needs," he says. "It may offend some people, but we have to sell these tests the way Kellogg sells cornflakes. We've got to learn to sell cornflakes."


The most sensitive of all accountability policies are those that make students face high stakes, such as requiring them to pass a test to graduate.

That's why some Arkansas officials were not surprised by the fate of their state's high school exit exam, an initiative of then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. First given in the spring of 1996, the test sparked an outcry after 80 percent of the juniors failed the math portion, and 51 percent flunked the test in reading/writing.

Tucker, a Democrat, "put that in but didn't lay an adequate base of preparation or get the public support," Democratic state Sen. Jodie Mahony says. “When I saw the results, I knew [the exit exam] was dead meat.”

Mahony was right. No one has been barred by the state from graduating based on the exam results, and it is likely that no one ever will be. “The state should not place the consequences on students,” Raymond Simon, the director of the state education department, argues. “That’s up to locals.”

Still, the experience has been enlightening. The exams are being reconfigured into five subject-matter tests in algebra, geometry, biology, civics/government, and literacy.

They will be given throughout high school as students complete coursework in those areas. The tests will be phased in over the next three years.

While students will not have to pass the tests to graduate, state officials expect students to take the exams seriously because their districts will be rated based on the results.

“Some think that if adults take assessments seriously, students will too,” says Gayle Potter, the associate director of curriculum and instruction for the state department of education. “Schools are also working on incentives and developing the idea of pride.”

Other Arkansas changes in the works include:

  • State-sponsored training on the new tests for principals and teachers from each of the state’s 311 school districts;
  • Reports on test data that will help schools diagnose and treat trouble areas; and
  • The hiring of math and reading specialists in the 15 regional education cooperatives statewide.

“The lesson we learned as a state was that we adopted an exam that bore little relationship to instruction,” Simon remarks. “It’s unfair to have children tested on material they have not learned.”


But, as educators In Michigan discovered, tests do not necessarily need to have tough consequences to be controversial. Hundreds of Michigan parents withdrew their juniors from the state's high school proficiency test in 1997. Passing the test was not required for graduation. Instead, high performers got a state seal on their diplomas.

Even so, the parents who opposed it argued that the 11-hour test was a no-win deal for their children. The test ratings of "proficient," "novice," and "not yet novice" were vague and punitive, they added. The rebellion caught policymakers off guard because, for the most part, it came from well-to-do parents.

"I thought that Michigan had done it right. We walked the middle ground," says Diane Smolen, the state education department's director of standards, assessment, and accreditation. But, she says of the proficiency test, "it didn't work. Even that was radical. And it affected parents who are more politically savvy."

Faced with calls from some lawmakers to kill the test, the legislature instead spent several months revising it before giving the exam again last spring.

The new version is shorter by four hours. And the more explicit ratings, which appear on student transcripts, range from "level 1, endorsed, exceeded Michigan standards," to "level 4, unendorsed."

While the changes have salvaged Michigan's effort to test graduating high school students, they have not come without a price. "We are starting over," Smolen says. "We don't have comparable data to previous years."

Other observers say some problems could resurface.


Like most public policy, school accountability is a constantly evolving creature. As such, the inevitable backpedaling and midcourse corrections mean that yesterday's role models become today's examples of what to avoid. The best such case study may be the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. A reform blueprint for other states since its inception, the package itself, known as KERA, was reformed by the legislature last year after a string of serious setbacks.

Lawmakers approved the far-reaching revision of the state education system nine years ago after a 1989 court ruling in a school finance lawsuit found the previous system unconstitutional. The ambitious plan included standards, exams, sanctions, and rewards for K-12 public schools and students. "We were boldly going where no man had gone before," says Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, a Democrat. Though a fierce defender of KERA, he concedes that "there were some mistakes, but that was not unanticipated."

The first mistake may have been a failure to adequately promote the plan, which has long been fought by a small but vocal group of foes.

"Glaring misunderstanding among teachers was a major weakness," says Robert F. Sexton, the director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonpartisan citizens' group based in Lexington. "There was overt political hostility, and teachers did not know how to defend themselves."

Credibility problems also plagued the tests that were an integral part of KERA. The Kentucky Instructional Results Information System helped rate schools, set cash awards for teachers, and determine staff sanctions. After some scores were miscalculated in 1996, the state fired its testing contractor. Cheating and grade inflation also led to changes of test scores in about 50 schools since 1993.

Another blow came in 1996, when the respected 412-student Anchorage School in Jefferson County was deemed "in crisis" because its scores slipped slightly.

"We were in the top two or three in the state, and we were in crisis. It made no sense," says Kevin C. Sachs, a member of the Jefferson County school board. "This was seen as something from the state that didn't work well."


Supporters of ORA hope that a new testing system slated to be unveiled this spring will resolve the problems. Among other changes, millions of dollars in awards that had gone to teachers will now go to their schools. Kentucky officials insist the changes are not a step backward.

"Quite the contrary," Shaughnessy argues. "We said we will not go back to the way we ran our schools. In the light of an incredible amount of opposition and momentum, we drew a line in the sand and pushed those forces back and created a good deal of momentum."

But supporters of an off-the-shelf, nationally normed test doubt the changes will help. "You have to believe in miracles to believe they can develop on such a tight time frame a valid test," says Sen. Jay Williams, a Republican. "I think they've delayed the demise of the system by two years."


Student consequences are not the only accountability area in which state leaders have reconsidered their decisions in light of vigorous opposition. North Carolina spent two years debating the increasingly contentious matter of teacher accountability.

Under a 1997 law, 247 teachers in 15 of 30 schools deemed low-performing by the state were to take a general-knowledge test last June. Teachers who failed the test three times were to lose their jobs.

North Carolina is one of 10 states nationwide with laws that allow the state to recommend replacement of individual staff members in failing schools. But it became the only state to use that authority when it recommended that two teachers not be rehired last year. Both teachers are appealing the decisions to the state board of education.

As for the teacher-testing program, it was one of the nation's most punitive and was supposed to expand in coming years. But the North Carolina Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association, filed a lawsuit against the exam. The suit argued that the exam, which was designed to test college sophomores in Florida, was not a valid measure of teacher competency in North Carolina.

Before the case proceeded further, the legislature and the teachers' association negotiated a change in the law that essentially abandoned the tests.

That agreement incensed some lawmakers.

"We did not require the tests because of the bleating that they were demeaning and insulting," Republican state Sen. Hamilton C. Horton says. "What we wanted was to make sure our teachers had more general knowledge than the students."

But Sen. Leslie Winner, a Democrat, says the change, which was supported by Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., did not represent a weakening of the state's accountability efforts.

"I view this as a relatively minor refinement of the overall program," she says. The exams were highly demoralizing for the targeted schools and addressed the wrong issues, Winner maintains. "Even if teacher incompetence were the reason for schools performing weakly, it seemed unlikely to me that lack of teacher knowledge was the problem," she adds. "Maybe it was a lack of management skills."


Nationwide, 10 states now have passed legislation that allows them to take over a persistently low-performing school, according to an Education Week survey conducted for Quality Counts.

One of the biggest things that states have faced is public backlash from poor performance on statewide tests.
Julie O’Brian
State Services Coordinator, Education Commission of the States

But, according to state officials, none of those states has ever used its authority to step in and run a failing school. And if district takeovers provide any example, states are not likely to rush to take over individual schools, even if such threats make for good headlines.

"States have looked at other examples and don't see any particularly positive results," says Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. "Because of these examples and others, the view of takeovers is that they are messy and don't provide academic results."

One of the more recent failed efforts on the state-takeover front was in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson saw his effort to gain control of the Milwaukee district squelched in the legislature. The defeat was striking because Thompson was unable to get the backing from the Republican-controlled Senate and Assembly, where lawmakers were reluctant to usurp local communities' control over their schools.

Michigan Gov. John Engler, also a Republican, has seen his repeated threats to take over the Detroit schools stir similar feelings. And Pennsylvania's GOP governor, Tom Ridge, appears to be facing an uphill battle to get control over Philadelphia's schools.

"For many years, it didn't seem like states did much of anything with failing schools other than the extremes: nothing or a takeover," Ziebarth says. "Now it appears that states will do something in low-performing districts, but if it won't be takeovers, what will it be?"

Vol. 18, Issue 17, Page 75-78

Published in Print: January 11, 1999, as In the Face Of Adversity
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