Kevin Welner, executive director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, has advice for the test-loving reformers: Stop making excuses!
For the past 15 years or more, a passel of organizations have pushed test-based accountability; they never met a test they didn’t like and they used test scores to bash teachers and American public education. They ARE the status quo. They own the U.S. Department of Education. Their views are backed by federal law, the No Child Left Behind Act, and by the billions handed out by the federal Race to the Top. They have had the admiration and financial support of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, and dozens of other philanthropic (testophilic) foundations. Their theory was simple: More testing will produce higher achievement; test scores can be used to weed out bad teachers; test scores can be used to fire teachers and principals, and to close public schools. Test, test, test, test and one day all children will be proficient, everyone will go to college, and there will be no more poverty.
When NAEP 2013 scores were released, Arne Duncan boasted about the success of test-based accountability. See? The scores are up! The states that got Race to the Top funding are making higher scores! See! See!
Except: the 2015 NAEP scores didn’t go up. In fact, most were either flat or declined. Some of the scores declined the most in the Race to the Top winning states. The theory failed.
But, as Kevin Welner shows, the test-loving reformers now resort to excuses. Sometimes they even sound like those who disagree with them: It must be demography! It must be poverty! It must be the opt-out movement! It must be the lingering effects of the 2008 recession! It is an anomaly, a minor blip! Wait until 2025 before judging!
Kevin writes that it is a mistake to draw causal inferences from test scores, as is now so common. There are many reasons that scores go up or down, and not all of them are apparent. I would add that it is a mistake to use standardized tests as the Holy Grail of education because they have limitations and flaws; they are a social construct, not a scientific instrument. If nothing else, the 2015 scores should teach test-loving reformers not to make tests the measure of all things. Perhaps now they will agree that schools and education and students must be evaluated with far greater sophistication and understanding than simplistic standardized tests permit.
Kevin Welner writes:
This morning’s release of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports a dip in scores, according to multiple sources. These lower grades on the Nation’s Report Card are not good news for anyone, but they are particularly bad news for those who have been vigorously advocating for “no excuses” approaches — standards-based testing and accountability policies like No Child Left Behind. Such policies follow a predictable logic: (a) schools are failing; and (b) schools will quickly and somewhat miraculously improve if we implement a high-stakes regime that makes educators responsible for increasing students’ test scores.
To be sure, the sampling approach used by NAEP and the lack of student-level data prohibit direct causal inferences about specific policies. Although such causal claims are made all the time, they are not warranted. It is not legitimate to point to a favored policy in Massachusetts and validly claim that this policy caused that state to do well, or to a disfavored policy in West Virginia and claim that it caused that state to do poorly.
However, as Dr. Bill Mathis and I explained eight months ago in an NEPC Policy Memo, it is possible to validly assert, based in part on NAEP trends, that the promises of education’s test-driven reformers over the past couple decades have been unfulfilled. The potpourri of education “reform” policy has not moved the needle—even though reformers, from Bush to Duncan, repeatedly assured us that it would.
This is the tragedy. It has distracted policymakers’ attention away from the extensive research showing that, in a very meaningful way, achievement is caused by opportunities to learn. It has diverted them from the truth that the achievement gap is caused by the opportunity gap. Those advocating for today’s policies have pushed policymakers to disregard the reality that the opportunity gap arises more from out-of-school factors than inside-of-school factors.
Instead, they assured us that success was a simple matter of adults looking beyond crumbling buildings and looking away from the real-life challenges of living with racism or poverty. As a substitute, we were told to look toward a “no excuses” expectation for all children. This mantra has driven policy for an entire generation of students. The mantra was so powerful that we as a nation were able to ignore the facts and fail to provide our children with opportunities to learn.
His question: Will we now focus where we should have focused for the past 15 years, on opportunity to learn?
His wish: Would the reformers please reflect and stop making excuses?