School & District Management Opinion

From School Grades to Common Core: Debunking the Accountability Scam

By Anthony Cody — August 09, 2013 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

We now know that Tony Bennett’s reputation as “Mr. Accountability” was as phony as the scores his Indiana administration assigned to supposedly failing schools. But this scandal is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg that has been ripping a hole in the side of public education.

Here is the bitter truth. Standardized tests are a political weapon and can be used to tell whatever story you want. The campaign to hold schools and teachers “accountable” for test scores is a political project designed to deflect responsibility away from people who have gotten obscenely wealthy over the past few decades. The concept of “failing schools” is a bogus one. Schools are being shut down not in the interest of the children who attend them, but in order to create opportunities for new players in the education marketplace.

Teachers have been beaten down by the drive for “accountability” and most of our leaders have been so intimidated they will not directly take on this scam. Instead they nibble around the edges, complaining that we are “testing too much,” or that tests and standards are “misaligned,” as if getting everything perfectly lined up would make the system work. It won’t. If we are going to reclaim our schools from those attempting to privatize them, we must confront and refute the false indictment that is used to condemn the schools and the educators who work in them.

We have been bamboozled by fast-talkers who manipulate scores, grading systems and terminology to portray public schools as failures, and their preferred alternatives - semi private and for-profit charter schools - as superior. In order to see through this deception, we must become familiar with the ways these manipulations are occurring.

First, to understand the machinery at work, take a look at what one of the champions of market-based reform, Chester Finn, wrote in 2002, in the five year report for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute:

...today's most promising education reform strategies: "standards-based" reform (with its trinity of academic standards, tests, and consequences for success and failure) and "market-style" reform (with its emphasis on school choice, competition, alternative providers, and accountability to clients). Some think these strategies are opposed or incompatible. By our lights, just the opposite is true: Each needs the other if it is to have the brightest prospect of succeeding.

Why does each need the other? Because, in the view of these reformers, “government” schools have a monopoly that must be disrupted in order for competitors to gain entry to the marketplace. This monopoly can be disrupted by the use of standardized tests, with high stakes consequences for failure. In order for this to work, failure MUST be identified in public schools, and they must be shut down, so as to release students and public funding to semi-private and private alternatives.

This project has been hugely popular with people who are motivated by ideology and/or the opportunity for profit from the education sector - exemplified by Jeb Bush and his pet project, Chiefs for Change.

Their lead card is that public schools are failing, and must be held “accountable.” But as we are learning, the systems by which schools are being judged have been rigged to produce the outcomes the “reformers” desire.

Let’s start with what the former leader of Chiefs for Change, Tony Bennett, did in Indiana.

When the preliminary report showed that his favorite charter school, Christel House, founded by millionaire Christel DeHaan, (who had donated $130,000 to Bennett’s campaign) was about to get a C, Bennett’s office made several changes to the ways the grades were calculated. They allowed schools to get more than four points in a single subject, and they removed the scores from the school’s newly expanded grades nine and ten. These two manipulations allowed the school to receive an A. Bennett claimed that he made these changes because Christel House’s low score revealed flaws in the system. But public schools that had earlier suffered similarly had not met a similar reaction. So long as the public schools were being dinged, the system was working as planned. Only when his favorite charter school scored poorly did he react.

Was this an isolated instance? Or are our political leaders systematically manipulating test scores and school grades to achieve their policy goals? One swallow does not make a summer, as they say. Are there more to be found?

Matthew DiCarlo provides us with a breakdown of how the school grading system in Indiana works.

Almost 85 percent of the schools with the lowest poverty rates receive an A or B, and virtually none gets a D or F. But the relationship is most visible among the poorest schools, a little over half of which are assigned an F or D, compared with about 22 percent across all schools. Actually, of the 125 elementary/middle schools that got an F this year, 100 were in the highest poverty quartile. Only eight were in one of the two lowest-poverty quartiles.
And just 25 percent of the poorest schools got an A or B, compared with almost 60 percent overall.

School accountability systems such as those in use in Indiana and many other states are designed to undermine and remove support from schools attended by poor and minority students. How about schools attended by better-off students?

And, under Indiana's system, a huge chunk of schools, most of which serve advantaged student populations, literally face no risk of getting an F, while almost one in five schools, virtually every one of which with a relatively high poverty rate, has no shot at an A grade, no matter how effective they might be. And, to reiterate, this is a feature of the system, not a bug - any rating scheme that relies heavily on absolute performance will generate ratings that are strongly associated with student characteristics like poverty. It's just a matter of degree.

This flaw appears to infect other such school grading systems. Here is an example from the state of Maine, where another of Jeb Bush’s “Chiefs for Change” has put in place such a system. From a tool that shows the correlation between student poverty and Maine’s school grading system, the high school results:

This clearly shows the same pattern we see every time we look. Higher poverty schools have lower scores. Blogger Jersey Jazzman asks the billion dollar question: “If the correlation between income and education levels is ‘illustrated by the grading system,’ how can you say for sure you’re measuring school effectiveness, and not poverty levels?” And if accountability systems are primarily reflecting poverty, rather than the quality or effort of those working in these schools, how are they helpful?

Matthew DiCarlo identifies the same issue in Florida.

...there are many Florida schools with lower-performing students that are actually very effective in accelerating student performance (at least insofar as tests can measure it). This particular ratings system, however, is so heavily driven by absolute performance - how highly students score, rather than how much progress they have made - that it really cannot detect much of this variation.
There is a reason why over 97 percent of Florida's lowest-poverty schools receive A or B grades, and virtually every one of the schools receiving a D or F have poverty rates above the median. It's because schools are judged largely by absolute performance, and students from higher-income families tend to score higher on tests.

In New Jersey, the state education commissioner Chris Cerf has set up an NCLB waiver system that puts schools into four categories: Priority (meaning low performing schools subject to interventions), Focus, Other, and Reward - the high performing schools that get bonus funds. This table from Bruce Baker shows the demographics of the schools in the different categories. What are the predominant demographics of the schools getting rewards? And what about those getting lined up for closure?

Similar patterns are found in New York.

Discrediting public schools is half the equation. Propping up “disruptive” competing charter and private schools is the other half of the manipulation game, and this is where Tony Bennett’s self described “lies” caught up with him. Is there a pattern here as well?

Repeated investigations into charter schools have uncovered the same things. These schools tend to serve fewer of the students who are the most challenging to educate. Reporter Stephanie Simon of Reuters wrote last February about the screening systems many charter schools set up to block “undesirable” students, who are then sent back to the public schools. In spite of these advantages, charter schools have not achieved significantly better performance overall, however.

The next accountability gorilla about to be set loose are the tests aligned with the Common Core. And we are hearing a great deal about the disastrously low proficiency rates coming out of New York state.

New York parent and blogger Leonie Haimson explains that:

Only 31% of students in New York State passed the new Common Core exams in reading and math. More than one third -- or 36% -- of 3rd graders throughout the state got a level I in English; which means they essentially flunked. In NYC, only 26 percent of students passed the exams in English, and 30 percent passed in math - meaning they had a level 3 or 4. Only 5% of students in Rochester passed.

This leads us to a bizarre situation. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been a huge proponent of test-driven reform. According to the New York Times, “When he ran for re-election in 2009, he boasted of state test scores that showed two-thirds of city students were passing English and 82 percent were passing math.”

These scores were from state exams, which had very high stakes. As we know, high stakes tests means extensive test preparation, and guess what - that means your results do not necessarily reflect real gains in learning. This proved to be the case in New York, because the low-stakes National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed no real gains during these years.

But they were good enough for Mike Bloomberg to use them to get re-elected. Now, four years later, Bloomberg has greeted the falling Common Core scores as “very good news,” saying, “We have to make sure that we give our kids constantly the opportunity to move towards the major leagues.” He and other reformers have greeted the widespread low scores on Common Core tests as evidence of impending success for their project, and are urging that schools continue down this painful path. It seems that if the scores go up, this proves their reforms are working. And when the scores go down, this is good news as well, because it demonstrates their commitment to “rigor.”

The fact is, the all-important cut score, which is used to label students proficient, is set in New York by the state education commissioner. Where this cut score is set can make a big difference in how good or bad our schools look. So if you want to make the schools look bad, set the cut score high. If you want them to look good, lower it!

Diane Ravitch explains the error that leaders in New York have made:

Proficient" on NAEP is what most people would consider to be the equivalent of an A. When I was a member of the NAEP governing board, we certainly considered proficient to be very high level achievement.
New York's city and state officials have decided that NAEP's "proficiency" level should be the passing mark


They don't understand that a student who is proficient on NAEP has attained "a very high level of academic achievement."

Or perhaps they understand, but wish to set the bar where they have for political reasons.

In Florida, the State Board of Education acted hastily last year to “lower the bar” on the FCAT, which tests writing proficiency in grades 4, 8 and 10. The Board decided that a score of 3 on a scale of 1 to 6 would be enough to make one “proficient.” Before the shift, one needed a score of 4, and only about a third of the students would have passed. With the lowered target, about 80% will be considered proficient.

This was done to avoid a backlash - it was a political decision, as is every decision on where to place the cut score.

The whole push to raise standards is a political project, and those in charge of the levers of control - the cut scores and school grading systems -- are determined to use the tests, especially the new and terrible results from the Common Core tests, to further stigmatize and label as failures schools attended by poor and minority students.

Some of our union leaders are doing some fancy footwork in response to this. Mike Mulgrew of the New York City AFT local asserted that the poor Common Core scores were evidence of poor preparation, which echoes Randi Weingarten’s plea for a year’s moratorium on the high stakes consequences for such tests. The NEA leadership seems to likewise feel that their primary duty is to help their members prepare so they can succeed in implementing the new standards - so much so that they have accepted a nearly $4 million grant from the Gates Foundation “to support a cohort of National Education Association Master Teachers in the development of Common Core-aligned lessons in K-5 mathematics and K-12 English Language Arts. “

I think they are missing the point. The Common Core standards and the tests that are coming with them are designed to result in widespread failure, not success. They are designed to renew the now-tarnished indictment that NCLB brought against our schools. They will be used to label more schools and students than ever as failures.

I have heard from union leaders that they feel the need to prepare teachers in their organizations to implement the new standards and curriculum, and I understand that desire to respond to this demand. However, there is a far bigger demand that is not being met. Teachers do not understand the sledgehammer that is about to come down on schools across the country as Common Core test results come in. Kentucky in 2012 was a wakeup call, with a 30% drop in proficiency levels. New York this year is a slap in the face. What teachers need is genuine political education, so they can respond in every community to the vicious political assault the privatizers are about to unleash on public education.

Our response must be, as members of the teaching profession, and as members of the unions that represent educators, to reject as baseless these phony, politically-driven accountability systems. These systems to rate schools based on proficiency rates are really much more accurately reflecting levels of poverty, rather than the quality of teaching in effect. Many of those advocating them are, like Tony Bennett, attempting to promote their own favored competitors, in a race in which they have made themselves the rule-makers and referees.

When someone sets up a competition that is rigged from the start, our response cannot be to ask for more time to prepare. The answer is to expose the machinery at work behind the scenes, and demand that our schools be accountable not to some state or federal bureaucrat, but to the students and parents of their communities. We will not overcome poverty by firing those who have chosen to work with the poor. Our schools and students need support, not more means by which they can be ranked and rejected. Real support from our unions means educating and organizing members to respond with vigor and pride about our students, our schools, and our work as professionals. Teachers cannot “succeed” under these systems because that is not their design. So rather than trying to prepare for tests many of our schools were never meant to pass, we need to prepare teachers to defend and reclaim their schools, and reject the accountability scam.

What do you think? Are our high poverty schools being set up for yet another round of condemnations? How should we -- and our union leaders -- respond?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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.