Accountability Opinion

The NCLB Paradox Enters the Twilight Zone

By Diane Ravitch — September 22, 2009 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Over the past week, you and I have each weighed in on the defects of testing. You have been arguing for many years that standardized testing is replete with flaws. I have only recently recognized the ways in which pressure to raise scores, mainly prompted by NCLB, has corrupted testing and accountability.

Our policymakers have fallen in love with the idea that incentives and sanctions can “drive” educational improvement. They believe that if we promise rewards when test scores go up, we will see test scores go up. So they commit hundreds of millions of dollars to give “merit pay” or “performance pay” to teachers and principals, even to students—if the scores rise. Simultaneously, they threaten to inflict serious sanctions on those schools, principals, and teachers if their students’ test scores do not go up. They don’t dock their pay, but do something worse: They threaten to close their schools, fire the staff, and tarnish the reputation of anyone who taught there.

Behind these promises and threats lies a simple theory: scores are not high enough, because teachers are either lazy, don’t work hard, or aren’t motivated enough to do a good job. So teachers will work harder and be more successful if they can get more money, and they will work harder and be more successful if their livelihoods and reputations are on the line.

The problem with the incentives and sanctions approach is that it works. It does produce higher scores. We see scores going up in many states, sometimes at rates that defy belief. Some states may actually reach that dreamy goal of 100 percent “proficiency” by 2014.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that schools, principals, teachers, and students will reach the goal by hook or by crook. Some states, like New York and Illinois, will play statistical games (like dropping the cut point, or creating conversion tables to change low scores into high scores). Some states will dumb down their tests, carefully field-testing the tests and removing any questions that are too difficult. Some districts will scrub their scores to remove low-scoring students (yes, this has happened). Some districts will find other ways to exclude the low-scoring students, such as by giving accommodations to students who are not usually entitled to them. Some schools will reclassify students to put their lowest scoring students in a group that doesn’t “count” because its numbers are so small. Some will even cheat.

Ultimately, we will have what I call the NCLB Paradox, wherein scores go up, but actual educational improvement does not occur. We will see districts where the reading and math scores are through the roof, and where graduation rates have climbed, but where the rate of college-ready students is unchanged. I expect there are many such districts. The one I know best is New York City, which won the Broad award in 2007 for its excellence in improving urban education. Test scores have soared, based on dumbed-down tests; graduation rates are up across the board. Yet when graduates of the New York City public school system enter the community colleges of New York City, 74 percent of them require remediation in basic skills! These are students who passed five state Regents examinations, yet they need to be remediated in reading, writing, and mathematics! This suggests, does it not, that there is something amiss with those impressive test scores and graduation rates?

This raises the question: With scores so often rigged and fraudulent, how can we use them to pay bonuses or to close schools? New York City’s last round of phony test scores (noticed as phony even by the august New York Times) triggered a payout of $33 million in bonuses to teachers; the union is laughing all the way to the bank! So millions are awarded in fraudulent bonuses at the same time that school budgets are cut to the bone. Is this the way that big business operates? If so, it is no wonder that we had a financial meltdown.

I fear that American education has now entered into a twilight zone, where nothing is what it appears to be, where numbers are meaningless, where public relations and spin take the place of honest reporting, where fraud is called progress.


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