Sunday, August 12, 2007

Civil Rights Organizations and NCLB

A Letter from Selected Civil Rights Groups on Multiple Measures

August 7, 2007

The Honorable George Miller The Honorable Edward Kennedy, Chair
Chair, Committee on Education and Labor Senate Committee on Health, Education,
United States House of Representatives Labor and Pensions
2205 Rayburn House Office Building 317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20515 Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Howard P. McKeon The Honorable Michael Enzi
Ranking Member, Committee on Education Ranking Member, Senate HELP Committee
2351 Rayburn House Office Building 379A Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20515 Washington, DC 20510

Dear Sirs:

We are writing to express our strong support for a comprehensive model of
accountability in the re-authorization of ESEA that will include multiple measures which can
focus schools both on developing high quality teaching and learning and on educating all
students to graduation. We applaud the Congress’s commitment to address the inadequate
education received by poor and minority children, which led to the enactment of No Child Left
Behind. We share the goal of real progress on educational outcomes, and we see accountability
as a valuable tool. We also believe Congress can improve the law to better foster genuine
educational progress and to hold schools and school systems accountable for a broader array of
important educational outcomes. The benefits can be increased and the harms dramatically
reduced with a relatively simple and feasible system of multiple indicators.

Therefore, we are very pleased that you and the Committees on Education are
considering including the use of multiple measures of student progress for accountability
decisions in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We believe that
the accountability provisions must include a system of multiple assessments of learning, which
can help schools focus on assessing the full range of standards and skills appropriately, and
multiple indicators of school performance, which emphasize the importance of keeping students
in school and educating them to graduation.

Ideally, schools should be held accountable for student growth along all parts of the
achievement continuum. They should demonstrate continuous progress on an index of indicators
comprised of multiple academic assessments, plus measures of student progress through school,
such as graduation and grade promotion rates. Together, these components can support a
comprehensive and educationally beneficial accountability system.

If education is to improve in the United States, schools must be assessed in ways that
produce high-quality learning and that create incentives to keep students in school. A number of
studies have found that an exclusive emphasis on (primarily multiple-choice) standardized test
scores has narrowed the curriculum. The most recent reports of the Center for Education Policy
(CEP) and the National Center for Education Statistics (May 2007 Stats in Brief) confirm
sizeable drops in time dedicated to areas other than reading and math, including science, history,
art, and physical education. The CEP also found that districts are more tightly aligning their
instruction to this limited format as well as content of state tests. While these tests are one useful
indicator of achievement, studies document that they often overemphasize low-level learning. As
reporter Thomas Toch recently stated, "The problem is that these dumbed-down tests encourage
teachers to make the same low-level skills the priority in their classrooms, at the expense of the
higher standards that the federal law has sought to promote." To succeed in college, employment
and life in general, students need critical thinking and problem solving skills that the tests fail to
measure, and they need a complete curriculum.

The law's every-grade every-year testing requirement has discouraged the use of
assessments of higher order thinking that motivate ambitious intellectual work and leverage
stronger teaching and learning, but take more time and resources to score. These kinds of
assessments – which include written essays, oral examinations, research papers, open-ended
problems, and other performance assessments – are routinely used in high-achieving European
and Asian systems that emphasize higher-order knowledge and skills. Some of our nation’s
highest performing districts and states have given up the high-quality assessments they created in
the 1990s, because the law currently acts as a disincentive to encourage their continued use.

Perhaps the most troubling unintended consequence of NCLB has been that the law
creates incentives for schools to boost scores by pushing low-scoring students out of school. The
very important goal of graduating more of our students has simply not been implemented, and
the accountability provisions actually reward schools with high dropout rates. Push-out
incentives and the narrowed curriculum are especially severe for students with disabilities,
English language learners, students of color and economically disadvantaged students. Recent
reports of the Public Education Network confirm that parents, students and other community
members are concerned about the over-reliance on test scores for evaluating students and schools.
A number of recent studies have confirmed that this over-reliance has been associated with grade
retention and other school actions that exacerbate dropout rates and student exclusion from
school, especially for low-income students of color. This creates the perverse outcome that
efforts to raise standards are resulting in fewer students receiving an education.

A central part of a solution to these problems is to employ multiple forms of assessment
and multiple indicators, while retaining the powerful tools of publicly available assessment
information and the critically important focus on equity. A multiple measures approach can help
schools and districts improve student outcomes more effectively because:

1. The use of multiple measures ensures that attention will be given to a comprehensive
academic program and a more complete array of important learning outcomes;

2. A multiple measures approach can incorporate assessments that evaluate the full range
of standards, including those addressing higher-order thinking and performance skills;

3. Multiple measures provide accountability checks and balances so that emphasizing one
measure does not come at the expense of others (e.g. boosting test scores by excluding
students from school), but they can give greater emphasis to priority areas; and

4. A multiple measures index can provide schools and districts with incentives to attend
to the progress of students at every point on the achievement spectrum, including those
who initially score far below or above the test score cut point labeled “proficient.” It can
encourage schools to focus on the needs of low-scoring students, students with
disabilities, and ELL students, using assessments that measure gains from wherever
students begin and helping them achieve growth.

One of the central concepts of NCLB’s approach is that schools and systems will
organize their efforts around the measures for which they are held accountable. Because focusing
exclusively on a single indicator is both partial and problematic, the concept of multiple
measures is routinely used by policymakers to make critical decisions about such matters as
employment and economic forecasting (e.g., the Dow Jones Index or the GNP), as well as
admissions to college. Successful businesses use a “dashboard” set of indicators to evaluate their
health and progress, aware that no single measure is sufficient to understand or guide their
operations. Business leaders understand that efforts to maximize short-term profits alone could
lead to behaviors that undermine the long-term health of the enterprise.

Similarly, use of a single measure to guide education can create unintended negative
consequences or fail to focus schools on doing those things that can improve their long-term
health and the education of their students. Indeed, the measurement community's Standards for
Educational and Psychological Testing mandates the use of multiple sources of evidence for
major decisions. NCLB calls for multiple measures of student performance, and some states have
developed systems that incorporate such measures, but implementation of the law has not
promoted their use for evaluating school progress.

Multiple indicators can counter the problems caused by over-reliance on single measures.
Multiple forms of assessment include traditional statewide tests as well as other assessments,
developed and used locally or statewide, that include a broader range of formats, such as writing
samples, research projects, and science investigations, as well as collections of student work over
time. These can be scored reliably according to common standards and can inform instruction in
order to improve teaching and learning. Such assessments would only be used for accountability
purposes when they meet the appropriate technical criteria, reflect state-approved standards, and
apply equitably to all students, as is already the case in Connecticut, Nebraska, Oregon, Vermont,
and other states successfully using multiple forms of assessment.

To counter the narrowing of the curriculum and exclusion of important subjects that has
been extensively documented as a consequence of NCLB, the new law should also allow states
to include other subjects, using multiple forms of assessment, in an index of school indicators.
To ensure strong attention is given to reading and math, these subjects can be weighted more
heavily. Graduation rates and grade promotion rates should be given substantial weight in any
accountability system. Other relevant indicators of school progress, such as attendance and
college admission rates, could be included.

Because evidence is clear that multiple assessments are beneficial to student learning and
accountability decisions, we hope that the committee will take the step of providing significant
funds to assist states and districts to implement systems that include multiple forms of evidence
about student learning, including state and local performance assessments. Congress should also
require an evaluation of state multiple measures programs to enable sharing of knowledge and
improvement of state assessment and accountability systems.

A multiple measures approach that incorporates a well-balanced set of indicators would
support a shift toward holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes
that improve student achievement. This is a necessary foundation for genuine accountability.

Respectfully,

ACORN
Advancement Project
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
ASPIRA
Civil Rights Project
Council for Exceptional Children
Japanese American Citizens League
Justice Matters
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Learning Disabilities Association of America
National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)
National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian, Laotian, and
Vietnamese Americans (NAFEA)
National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents
National Council on Educating Black Children
National Federation of Filipino American Associations
National Indian Education Association
National Indian School Board Association
National Pacific Islander Educator Network (NPIEN)
National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA)
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