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Testing, Accountability, and Independence

By Patrick F. Bassett — June 19, 2002 7 min read
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Our artists, especially our writers and cartoonists, always seem to “get it” before the rest of us.

The standards, assessment, and accountability movement runs counter to our country's strongly held preference for the local control of schools.

Shortly before his death in 1991, Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, began work on a book about a unique school where the teachers decide what to teach and the students are excited about learning. Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! was finished by Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith and published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1998. What is remarkable about this little book is not its catchy rhyme scheme, its vivid illustrations, or even the enthusiasm shown by the students at its fictional Diffendoofer School. What is remarkable is Dr. Seuss’ foresight about the American education system.

The principal in Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, Mr. Lowe, visits Miss Bonkers’ class one day and nervously tells the students:

All schools for miles and miles around
Must take a special test.
To see who’s learning such and such—
To see which school’s the best.
If our small school does not do well,
Then it will be torn down.
And you will have to go to school
In dreary Flobbertown.

The children of Miss Bonkers’ class are understandably upset. She tells them, however, that they know the most important thing: They know how to think.

Throughout the United States, people who work in the media and the government are calling for rigorous, mandatory, and universal testing to counter what is perceived as the failure of the American education system. President Bush’s campaign to “leave no child behind” is a vehicle by which the federal government intends to drive schools forward. What worries many of us who work in education, however, is that high-stakes testing may be driving good schools backward rather than forward with a one-size-fits-all approach to student assessment and school accountability. Those who understand curriculum and instruction, and who are rightfully skeptical about the value of standardized tests in general, also worry very much about the deleterious impact of the movement on children. With all the memorization and test preparation, will students still be taught to think critically? Will they learn to love learning? We should listen to our artists, our cultural interpreters, before real damage is done to kids and to schools, and all of our children end up in “dreary Flobbertown” schools.

The standards, assessment, and accountability movement runs counter to our country’s strongly held preference throughout its history for the local control of schools. Unlike the model in many other countries, where there is a Ministry of Education that dictates curriculum and testing and uniform outcomes (but typically separates students early into college-bound or technical/apprentice tracks), the United States has to this point taken a different path.

Shortly before his death Dr. Seuss began work on a book about a unique school where the teachers decide what to teach and the students are excited about learning.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Pierce v. Society of Sisters early on established that parents have the right to direct their own children’s educations and futures by choosing the best schools for them, public or private. In November 1922, the voters of Oregon had adopted through initiative the Compulsory Education Act, which required every parent or guardian in the state to send children between the ages of 8 and 16 to a local public school. Failure to do so constituted a misdemeanor punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. In response, two schools filed suit against the state, alleging that the act interfered with the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, the rights of children to influence their parents’ choice of schools, and the rights of people who work within private schools to continue their work.

On June 1, 1925, Justice James McReynolds delivered the court’s opinion. After noting that “no question is raised concerning the power of the state reasonably to regulate all schools,” Justice McReynolds went on to say: “We think it entirely plain that the act of 1922 unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control. ... The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

The Pierce ruling asserted the right of parents to choose educational settings for their children. State power to dictate a child’s upbringing was curbed, and the erection of a mandatory public educational system that all must attend was forbidden.

The crucial freedom of parental choice that was established in the Pierce case has enabled private schools to model educational excellence and variety. Because independent and other types of private schools are “free of central control and monolithic purpose,” these schools have the flexibility of organizing curricula and programs in a way that serves the specific populations that their individual missions stipulate. Private schools, just as students, are diverse and individual, some serving those with learning differences, some serving those of gifted abilities, and many, perhaps most, serving everyone in between. Because they are free from governmental mandates and dicta, private schools create and offer to the wider public models of unique “solutions” to the challenges of educating children well. Mandated testing and school regulation would inevitably homogenize the educational environment.

While we must ‘leave no child behind’ should we at the same time run the risk of producing cookie-cutter schools and relegating all students to a ‘dreary Flobbertown’ education?

Independent and other types of private schools (parochial, for example) do not shy away from public scrutiny and appropriate accountability. Private schools educate 11 percent of America’s students and are held accountable every day by the families who not only pay local taxes to support public schools, but also sacrifice discretionary income to pay private school tuition. Beyond the direct accountability to parents, independent schools welcome public scrutiny: As “not for profit” organizations, schools’ finances are available for the public to observe. The 1,200 schools holding membership in the National Association of Independent Schools submit to a cyclical peer-review accreditation system that obligates them to meet high standards, to disclose practices, to comply with local, state, and federal laws, and to assure “congruence” between stated mission objectives and actual practices and accomplishments. Increasingly, independent schools track their alumni, in some fashion or another, to determine the overall success of their programs. By these multiple and appropriate means, independent schools justify their ongoing worthiness and are held accountable not only to their own constituents, but also to the wider public.

The final test of any school, public or private, is how well the students do at the next level of schooling: Do they perform well? Graduate on schedule? Contribute as leaders? Become involved in the community? While we must, as our president so forcefully admonishes us, “leave no child behind,” should we at the same time run the risk of producing cookie-cutter schools and relegating all students to a “dreary Flobbertown” education?

How about a modest recalibration of the formula? Instead of shackling all schools with the same leg irons, whether they are poorly performing or high-performing schools, why not give the same freedoms enjoyed by high-performing private schools to high- performing public schools? Once a school, public or private, demonstrates the success of its programs (by measuring the success of its graduates at the next level of schooling), allow that school “to graduate” to the level of freedom of the independent schools—and see what real student and school success can look like in both the public and private sectors.

Because they are free from governmental mandates and dicta, private schools create models of unique ‘solutions’ to the challenges of educating children well.

What’s at stake with the push of governments at all levels toward centralized control, standardization, and uniformity? The imposition of state curricula and testing crushes the freedom that American families have to determine the best educational environment for their children. Homogenizing the American educational system with high-stakes tests and state-mandated curricula will not rescue all of the failing schools, but it could destroy the models of educational excellence that already exist.

In our zeal to leave no child behind, let’s not punish schools, public or private, that already serve children well by making them conform to government-mandated tests. In fact, let’s give high-performing public schools the same incentive of curricular freedom we currently give private schools if they can demonstrate that their students succeed. Then we will indeed set a positive incentive for all schools to perform.

Patrick F. Bassett, a former teacher and headmaster, is the president of the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Testing, Accountability, and Independence


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