Testing and Accountability in Public School


Linda Borg’s article in today’s Providence Journal gives a small taste of an argument that would be much more prominent if Rhode Islanders really cared about education as much as we say that we do.  At issue is Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s decision to end standardized testing at the high-school level.  Tim Duffy, of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, gets it right:

“If you aspire to be Massachusetts, then high school graduation requirements are going to have to have some consequences,” he said. “If there are no consequences for students, teachers or the system, we end up with improved graduation rates but we haven’t measured whether they are living up to the standards.”

One superintendent adds to that:

Chariho School Supt. Barry Ricci applauds any reduction in testing, but he doesn’t want the state to abandon tying a standardized test to graduation. Without that incentive, he said, high school students will not have any reason to take the test seriously. “I don’t want to give kids the message that we’re lowering the bar,” Ricci said.

In a word, what Wagner has diluted is accountability.  There has to be some way to hold not just students, but teachers and our entire public education system accountable.  What has happened (as I keep repeating) is that Rhode Island’s “fix the system” approach to education reform hit a political ceiling.  The adult special interests that infect our education system feared the prospect of having their failures laid bare in undeniable fashion, so they used our political system as a defensive weapon.  The repercussions of that explosion are reflected in standardized scores, with disadvantaged students (predictably) suffering the most harm.

I happen to agree with those who express concerns about high-stakes testing, but the public needs some means of measuring performance and imposing accountability.  Our children would be much better off, though, and our education system tremendously improved, if accountability derived from market mechanisms.  Let Rhode Islanders determine their own priorities for themselves and their own children and send students to the schools — public, charter, private, home — that best reflect those priorities.  Schools that cannot maintain viable student populations will have to improve or go out of business.

That scares our state’s politicians and insiders because no political ceiling would be possible once Rhode Island families got a taste of real reform.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    About 25 years ago, a former Massachusetts Education Commissioner, Dr. Silber (“the one-armed bandit’) said this. “When we determined that everyone should graduate from high school, we implicitly decided to lower the standards”.

  • Russ

    “I happen to agree with those who express concerns about high-stakes testing, but the public needs some means of measuring performance and imposing accountability.”

    This is like being told that we’ve been beating our heads against a wall and responding, “but if we stop beating our heads against the wall, what will we beat our heads against?”

    Measuring performance and imposing accountability actually ensures that we won’t see improvements in quality. Deming lists performance appraisal as one of his 7 deadly diseases of Western management.

    • Mike678

      Your reasoning skills lead me to believe you banged your head a few too many times. :)

  • Mike678

    High stakes testing? Setting a minimum bar to attain a High School Diploma is considered high stakes? How far we have fallen….

    That said, many countries don’t have testing. Finland, for example, tests occasionally to ensure schools are performing. But Finland is small country, with a homogeneous population and selects as it’s teachers the best and brightest. If you have great, motivated teachers, and a population that values education you can probably get very good results w/o testing.

    If we continue to use teachers that graduate from the bottom quintile of our schools, we probably can’t ensure some minimum level of quality without some externally imposed standardization/evaluation system. The challenge is that we are putting the effort on the backs of the students when we should actually be assessing the teachers. Good luck getting that through in RI….


  • Joe Smith

    Geez Justin, you rail about the state imposing itself too much and then come back and want the state to impose more standards when state law gives that power to local school districts and most communities are the primary source of funding.

    “the public needs some means of measuring performance and imposing accountability”. – Yes, local school boards can add to the minimal state requirements. The limiting factor is not the state adding requirements, it is the state reducing accountability choices – meaning the state prohibiting districts from adopting a standard test requirement for graduation.

    Districts do go beyond the state diploma requirements, usually in the form of more credit hours and maybe additional performance based local assessments. A real choice would be to let districts that pay for the majority of their education costs also determine locally their own definitions and priorities for what their community members expect from the investment in education with the state offering a general expectation or mandating it only for low performing schools. Then, communities can determine the assessments that measure the outcomes related to those priorities they feel are the most important.

    Maybe a local district wants to add an internship or language requirement – that might be more valuable than whether a student on a given day can remember the right application of the Pythagorean theorem or has a fourth math class. Frankly, if we are replicating the “real world’, we should allow students to use the resources they would have at their disposal in reality; it’s silly to think we want to measure performance the same way it was done decades ago when how we learn and how we apply learning in the ‘real world” is different.

    You want to say give accountability by choice of school (why not for fire, ems, trash, other services then too?) but shouldn’t we also allow districts to have the freedom to set their own standards – or at least the same playing field as charters and privates (yeah, the unionized staff and religious elements aside)? We’ve had charters for two decades – haven’t we learned anything that can be adopted for all publics? Can anyone name one instance where the state has said “oh this is shown to work at charters so let’s give the same waiver to all schools?”

    I tend to agree with Russ – let’s face it, at most schools, the administration and teachers (and at some point the parents) know the really good and really bad teachers even without the facade of teacher evaluations. For most students, the same is true if good local assessments are being done.

    Plus, what’s the point of testing, even if not for individual accountability, if the state is not doing anything with the data. Look at PARCC ELA scores – there is across the board (regardless of race/income/community) a gender gap, but do you hear the Commissioner or Governor at all talk about why boys aren’t as literate as girls (and Massachusetts data shows similar findings)?

    PS – You are not quite correct on testing end at high school level. Districts I believe are still required to administer the Algebra I level test, usually at 9th grade, but could be 10th or 11th depending on the progress of individual students.

    • Russ

      Consider how different his reaction was to this story…

      Billions (nationally) spent on false accountability for teachers? The public “needs” it! But spend a tiny fraction of that on vo-tech, and suddenly Justin is apoplectic about “bureaucrats” and “the big-government machine” controlling the educational system.

      Of course, if the goal is union busting and privatization then whether or not the plan actually improves outcomes is besides the point. Justin kind of hints at that with his doublespeak about desiring accountability via “market mechanisms” (read privatization).

      Privatizing Public Education, Higher Ed Policy, and Teachers

    • Justin Katz

      As a short post, the above doesn’t reflect my complete thinking on the matter. The problem (as pokes its way through here and there in your comment) is the pick-and-choose nature of what is left to locals and what is not. The state mandates at least level funding per year, for example, and makes teacher unionization inevitable (if it’s not explicitly mandated). We have a system in which it is absurd to think that the people of a particular city or town can reform their education system to the extent necessary.
      In this environment, the public needs some means of accountability, and it has to be standardized across the state, not so the state can do something with the data, so the public can. The beginning of the end, in my view, came with the switch to PARCC from NECAP. The datasets for the latter were just reaching the point at which people at the state and local levels could make meaningful arguments based on the data, giving them some leverage in arguments over what changes to make. Even without the constant switching of tests, that would be much less useful if every city and town had different tests applied with different standards.
      As to the matter of consistency, what ought to be consistent are principles, but every issue has a unique context in which to apply them. Making such distinctions, in fact, is why I believe government ought to be done at the local level as much as possible, and then at the state when local isn’t practical.

      • Russ

        “In this environment, the public needs some means of accountability, and it has to be standardized across the state, not so the state can do something with the data, so the public can.”

        Exactly, although it’s surprising to see it so plainly stated. Whether or not the data are useful to improving the schools (i.e. so the state can do something with the data) is irrelevant. What’s important is that corporatization advocates (i.e. “the public”) can do something with (misuse of) the data.

        Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing? #7 (pro) Data. More Data.