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.