The Great School Accountability Hoax

Sunday June 20, 2010

Diane Ravitch’s latest blog shows how school accountability in the United States is a great hoax. It serves as a major warning on the future of school education in Australia under a policy regime that slavishly follows the US lead without regard to the evidence.

The following is an edited version. Read the full version at Education Week.

The evidence continues to accumulate that our “accountability” policies are a great fraud and hoax, but our elected officials and policymakers remain completely oblivious to the harm caused by the policies they mandate.

Over the past several years, efforts to “hold teachers accountable” and “hold schools accountable” have produced perverse consequences. Instead of better education, we are getting cheating scandals, teaching to bad tests, a narrowed curriculum, lowered standards, and gaming of the system. Even if it produces higher test scores (of dubious validity), high-stakes accountability does not produce better education.

In their eagerness to show “results,” states are dumbing down their standards. The New York state education department dropped cut scores on the state tests from 2006 (the year that annual testing in grades 3-8 was introduced) to 2009. In 2006, a student in 7th grade could achieve “proficiency” by getting 59.6 percent of the points correct on the state math test; by 2009, a student in the same grade needed only 44 percent of the available points.

When New York state’s education department was criticized for dropping the cut scores on its tests, officials responded by insisting that the department dropped the cut scores because the tests were actually harder than in previous years. This was utter nonsense because the passing rates soared as the cut scores fell, which would not have been the case if the tests were “harder.” So, although it never acknowledged its past chicanery, the state education department claimed that the tests would really, really, truly be hard this year and that standards would once again be high.

The scandal of high-stakes testing is not limited to New York and Illinois. Last week, The New York Times reported about the ubiquity of cheating scandals across the nation. My guess is that it revealed only the tip of the iceberg.

I was in Baltimore on May 27, when The Baltimore Sun wrote about a major cheating scandal at an elementary school that had been widely recognized for its excellent test scores. In 2003, only one-third of the students in the school passed the state reading test, but within four years, almost all did. This was a “miracle” school; it won a federal Blue Ribbon for its remarkable gains. But it turned out that the school’s success was phony: Someone had erased and corrected many student answers.

The more that test scores are used to measure teacher effectiveness and to determine the fate of schools, the more we will see such desperate efforts by teachers and principals to save their jobs and their schools.

Yet even as more cheating scandals are documented, even as the perfidy of state testing agencies is documented, our federal policymakers plunge forward, blithely imposing unproven policies as well as “remedies” that have been tested and found wanting. Latest example: The June 9 issue of Education Week has a front-page story with this headline: “Merit-Pay Model Pushed by Duncan Shows No Achievement Edge”.

Merit pay has been tried and found ineffective again and again since the 1920s, but repeated failure never discourages its advocates, who are certain that if the incentives were larger, or if some other element was adjusted, it would surely work.

More emphasis on test scores. More money for teachers if the scores go up. More punishment for teachers and schools if the scores don’t go up. More cheating. More gaming the system. More concentration on basic skills (they count) and more indifference to the arts, history, science, foreign languages, etc. (they don’t count).

Diane Ravitch is Professor of Education at New York University and a former Assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush Snr. Her latest book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

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