Gillard Has Her Head in the Sand on Testing and Reporting

The education times are a-changing in the United States, but Julia Gillard is way behind the curve. Just as she embarks on her mission to transplant US style market-based education reforms in Australia their failure to deliver improved student outcomes is conceded by even their most trenchant advocates.

Last month, Chester Finn, a former US Assistant Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan and one of the most forceful advocates of school choice, competition, charter schools, vouchers and accountability measures in education over the past 30 years, gave a remarkable speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He said bluntly that:

…despite all the reforming, U.S. [test] scores have remained essentially flat, graduation rates have remained essentially flat, and our international rankings have remained essentially flat. You can find some upward blips but you can also find downward blips. Big picture, over 25 years, is flat, flat, flat. In other words, all the reforming has yielded little or nothing by way of stronger outcomes.

He was similarly critical of the results of school choice:

…on the school choice front, we have seen far too many schools of choice turn out to be disappointingly mediocre, delivering unsatisfactory educational results and, all too often, falling victim to organizational, political and financial woes, if not shenanigans. I learned that putting the “charter” sign on a schoolhouse door certainly signals that school’s opportunity to be different from other schools but it’s no guarantee of quality or even of different-ness. To be blunt, an awful lot of people starting and running charter schools, most of them earnest, well-meaning individuals and organizations, either don’t really know what they’re doing or lack the capacity to do it well.

This is a devastating indictment of choice and competition in schooling from one of its most vigorous advocates. Finn’s judgement is backed up by several major research studies in recent years.

It is also supported by the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress which show that the keystone education reforms of the Bush administration had virtually no impact on student achievement or in reducing achievement gaps. In commenting on these results in the New York Times last week, Finn said:

The trend is flat; it’s a plateau. Scores are not going anywhere, at least nowhere important. That means that eight years after enactment of No Child Left Behind, the problems it set out to solve are not being solved…

More detailed analysis of the results has revealed that student achievement increased faster before the introduction of Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program than over the years since. This was highlighted by the former head of the US National Centre for Education Statistics, Mark Schneider, writing in the on-line blog of the pro-competition American Enterprise Institute last week. He demonstrated that average gain in 4th and 8th grade scores in the seven years prior to the NCLB were significantly larger than since the law was passed.

This was also true for low performing students and minority groups. The average increase in scores for the lowest performing 10% of students, Blacks and Hispanics in 4th grade after the NCLB was passed was minimal and were 10-15 points below the average increases in the pre-NCLB period. The gaps between gains for 8th grade students in the pre- versus post-NCLB periods were smaller than for 4th grade, but for each student group the gains were lower since the NCLB was enacted.

Schneider’s conclusion was just as devastating as Finn’s:

…the bottom line is clear: NCLB has not worked the way it was intended and the nation is worse off because of it.

These results have significant implications for Australia. The No Child Left Behind legislation introduced a national standardized testing and reporting scheme which has some similarities to Gillard’s new testing and school reporting regime.

Under the NCLB, students in Grades 3 through 8 are tested yearly and all schools were required to publish their results, including results broken down by students’ race, sex and socio-economic background. Reports are issued as to whether schools are making “adequate yearly progress’’ towards set standards.

Schools that fail to make adequate progress face a mounting scale of sanctions, from being required to provide tutoring to students in poor-performing schools to the threat of state takeovers from school boards or the shutting down of individual schools. Gillard and the Prime Minister have already raised the spectre of sanctions against schools who fail to show adequate improvement in the new regime.

In his speech at Rice University, Finn said that the NCLB testing requirements are now causing considerable concern in the United States. He said that there is a “palpable backlash” against testing across much of the great American middle class because of its impact on curriculum and teaching.

…we need to face the fact that testing, particularly high-stakes uses of test results for students and teachers alike, are deeply unpopular outside policymaker circles and could well lose rather than gain political traction in coming years.

Finn said that there are widespread fears that testing narrows what is taught and that “drill and kill” is taking the place of deep understanding. Other fears are that it erodes teacher professionalism and motivation; cramps children’s individuality and unfairly penalizes some; and it is dumbing everyone down to basic skills while especially neglecting gifted and high-achieving students.

As a result of all this, the consensus about market-based education reforms in the United States “seems to be fraying at the edges if not actually unravelling” according to Finn. Some former advocates have already deserted the fold, most notably Diane Ravitch, a former US Assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush Snr. and a former colleage of Chester Finn at the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

Ravitch, now Professor of Education at New York University, has become a leading critic of testing and reporting in education and reliance on market-based approaches to education. She says that the NCLB has ‘promoted false, anti-educational values’.. While she sees value in standardised tests, she says that test scores are being misused to punish kids, teachers, and schools and to mislead the public as schools have become obsessed with testing.

…schools have become test-obsessed in a way that is not conducive to good education. Many schools and districts and states have learned how to game the system, and they are producing higher scores (by lowering the passing mark – or cut score – on their tests) that do not represent genuine improvement in learning. The amount of test-preparation now going on in the schools has a tendency to inflate test scores and even to invalidate the tests.

She has denounced Julia Gillard’s much admired New York City model of testing and reporting for its ‘phony results that are often rigged and fraudulent’. . She says that New York state’s test results amount to ‘institutionalized lying’.

The NCLB has corrupted testing and accountability so much that:

I fear that American education has now entered into a twilight zone, where nothing is what it appears to be, where numbers are meaningless, where public relations and spin take the place of honest reporting, where fraud is called progress.

Both Ravitch and Finn have lamented the narrowing curriculum in US schools under the pressure to improve test scores in reading and maths. Not only will it undermine the provision of a broad education for all but it also threatens greater inequity and social division. As they wrote in the Wall Street Journal

Top private schools and a few suburban systems will stick with education broadly defined, as will elite colleges. Rich kids will study philosophy and art, music and history, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets. The lucky few will spawn the next generation of tycoons, political leaders, inventors, authors, artists and entrepreneurs. The less lucky masses will see narrower opportunities. Some will find no opportunities at all, which frustration will tempt them to prey upon the fortunate, who in turn will retreat into gated communities, exclusive clubs, and private this-and-that’s, thereby widening domestic rifts and worsening our prospects for social cohesion and civility.

Australia now faces the same prospect under Gillard’s new national testing and reporting regime. In light of the failure of market-driven reforms in the US, Ravitch has posed a critical question which should also be asked of Gillard and Kevin Rudd:

I want to know why Washington is pushing “reform” ideas that have so little evidence behind them, ideas that might do serious damage to public education in America?

When such advocates of choice and competition, and of testing and accountability, are forced to concede it has failed in the United States, one might expect that Gillard would re-think. But, despite the lack of evidence, she remains seduced by the lure of greater competition and choice in schools. She has her head thoroughly buried in the sand. Our schools, our teachers and our children are going to be much the worse for it.

Trevor Cobbold

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