April 8, 2010
My guests are Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill, of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit organization that works to end the misuse and flaws of standardized testing.
By Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill
At a time when the gaps between educational haves and have-nots are as stark as at any time in our nation’s history, President Obama's and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s blueprint for intervening in our most troubled schools promises to widen these gaps. The Blueprint fueled hopes for real change by eliminating NCLB’s disastrous adequate yearly progress mechanism. It’s too bad AYP wasn’t killed while the law was being written, when it was first noticed that it would paint nearly all schools as failures. (See FairTest’s 2004 NCLB report on why.) But scrapping it now is better than never.
Duncan aims to correct AYP’s absurdly broad-brush approach by focusing on the 5%-10% of schools doing worst on state tests. This has both common sense and political appeal. Why not get off the backs of schools that are doing pretty well and focus attention on the worst of the worst?
But what are we really talking about when we talk about the worst schools?
With all the hype about schools that “beat the odds,” overcome poverty and close gaps in test scores, it’s easy to forget what research continues to confirm. As James Coleman found in his landmark 1966 education study, what test scores measure better than anything else is socioeconomic status (SES). So the bottom tier are inevitably schools serving largely poor, urban students of color.
Of course, many of those schools do need help. It would be a great thing if federal education law responded to this reality by creating a way to precisely identify the needs of the children, their families and their schools, and make long-term investments to provide them with essential resources, support and guidance. This is an approach advocated by FairTest, the Forum on Educational Accountability and others.
But here’s where common sense takes a holiday. The Blueprint’s response is to tighten the screws on these schools. If they continue to score low, they must choose from a menu of snake oil ’remedies,’ many unproven, and some well-proven failures, such as firing and replacing a school’s staff or closing and reopening a school as a charter school.
Though initially hyped as successful, Secretary Duncan’s use of similar interventions in Chicago now has been revealed as a failure, with little to no progress in achievement and increases in dislocation and youth violence.
Researchers have hunted for evidence that these or similar approaches have succeeded in the past and found none.
So the blueprint’s remedies promise to ensure that the children of the poor are trapped in schools doing all the destructive things we’ve already seen under NCLB. Desperate to avoid this list of devastating interventions, they will keep right on narrowing teaching and learning to what’s on the test, with little time or resources for the richer, more engaging curriculum poor kids deserve as much as anyone.
The good news is that releasing all but the lowest performing schools from AYP will at least partially free many schools that serve the children of middle class and affluent families from the pressure to focus on boosting test scores in math and reading.
What resources exist could be put back into areas deemed luxuries and therefore eliminated under NCLB--things like social studies, art, music, physical education and recess. Writing, reading and math might again be more than endless practice for test questions, which has affected wealthier districts too.
The worst news is that by trapping the poorest children in NCLB’s negative cycle and somewhat freeing the rest, we will only add to what Jonathan Kozol called "The Shame of the Nation," widening gaps in educational opportunity and quality.