failing grade

Why one Harvard professor calls American schools’ focus on testing a ‘charade’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Harvard professor Daniel Koretz is on a mission: to convince policymakers that standardized tests have been widely misused.

In his new book, “The Testing Charade,” Koretz argues that federal education policy over the last couple of decades — starting with No Child Left Behind, and continuing with the Obama administration’s push to evaluate teachers in part by test scores — has been a barely mitigated disaster.

The focus on testing in particular has hurt schools and students, Koretz argues. Meanwhile, Koretz says the tests are of little help for accurately identifying which schools are struggling because excessive test prep inflates students’ scores.

“Neither good intentions nor the value of well-used tests justifies continuing to ignore the absurdities and failures of the current system and the real harms it is causing,” Koretz writes in the book’s first chapter.

Daniel Koretz, Harvard Graduate School of Education

His skepticism will be welcome to families of students who have opted out of state tests across the country and others who have led a testing backlash in recent years. That sentiment helped shape the new federal education law, ESSA.

Koretz has another set of allies in some conservative charter and voucher advocates, including — to an extent — Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who criticized No Child Left Behind in a recent speech. “As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects,” she said. “Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards.”

But national civil rights groups and some Democratic politicians have made a different case: That it’s the government’s responsibility to continue to use test scores to hold schools accountable for serving their students, especially students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities. (ESSA continues to require testing in grades three through eight and for states to identify their lowest performing schools, largely by using test scores.)

We talked to Koretz about his book and asked him to explain how he reached his conclusions and what to make of research that paints a more positive picture of tests and No Child Left Behind.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Do you want to walk me through the central thesis of your book?

The reason I wrote the book is really the subtitle: we’re “pretending to make schools better.”

Most of the bad news that’s in this book is old news. We’ve been collecting evidence of various kinds about the impact of the very heavy handed, high-stakes testing that we use in this country for a long time. I lost patience with people pretending that these facts aren’t present. So I decided it would be worth writing a book that summarizes the evidence both good and bad about the effects of test-based accountability. When you do that, you end up with an awful lot on the bad side and not very much on the good side.

Can you talk about some of the bad effects?

There are a few that are particularly important. One is absolutely rampant bad test prep. It’s just everywhere. One of the consequences of that is that test scores are often very badly inflated.

There aren’t all that many studies of this because it’s not really a welcome suggestion. When you go to the superintendent and say, “Gee, I’d like to see whether your scores are inflated,” they rarely say, “Boy, we’ve been waiting for you to show up.” There aren’t that many studies, but they’re very consistent. The inflation that does show up is sometimes absolutely massive. Worse, there is growing evidence that that problem is more severe for disadvantaged kids, creating the illusion of improved equity.

Another is increasingly widespread cheating. We, of course, will never know just how widespread because there aren’t resources to examine the data from 13,000 school districts. Everyone knows about Atlanta, a few people know about El Paso, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s obviously also — and perhaps this should be on the same par — enormous amounts of stress for teachers, for kids, and for parents. That’s the bad side.

I want to ask a little more about test score inflation. What is the strongest evidence for inflation? And let me give you two pieces that to me seem like potentially countervailing evidence. One piece is when I’m looking at research on school turnaround — like the most recent School Improvement Grant program and also turnaround efforts in New York City — these schools have been under intensive pressure to raise test scores. And yet their test score gains on high-stakes tests have been pretty modest at best. The other example is the Smarter Balanced exam. The scores on the Smarter Balanced exam don’t seem to be going up. If anything, they’re going down.

The main issue is that score inflation doesn’t occur in the same amount everywhere. You’ve come up with two examples where there is apparently very little. There are other examples that are much worse than the aggregate data suggest.

In the case of Smarter Balanced, I would wait and see. Score inflation can only occur when people become sufficiently aware of predictable patterns in the test. You can’t game a test when you don’t know what irrelevant things are going to recur, and that just may take some time.

I’m wondering your take on why some of the strongest advocates for test-based accountability have been national civil rights groups.

One of the rationales for some of the most draconian test-based accountability programs we’ve had has been to improve equity. If you got back to the enactment of NCLB, you had [then-Massachusetts Sen.] Teddy Kennedy and [then-California Rep.] George Miller actively lobbying their colleagues in support of a Republican bill. George Miller summed that up in one sentence in a meeting I went to. He said, “It will shed some light in the corners.” He said that schools had been getting away with giving lousy services to disadvantaged kids by showing good performance among advantaged kids, and this would make it in theory impossible to do that.

Even going back before NCLB, I think that’s why there was so much support in the disability community for including disabled kids in test-based accountability in the 1990s — so they couldn’t be hidden away in the basement anymore. I think that’s absolutely laudable. It’s the thing I praise the most strongly about NCLB.

It just didn’t work. That’s really clear from the evidence.

I think the intention was laudable and I think the intention was why high-stakes testing has gotten so much support in the minority community, but it just has failed.

You mention in your book probably the most widely cited study on the achievement effects of No Child Left Behind, showing that there were big gains in fourth grade math and some gains in eighth grade math, but there wasn’t anything good or bad in reading.

Pretty much. There was a little bit of improvement in some years in reading but nothing to write home about.

So the math gains — and that was on the low-stakes federal NAEP test — they’re just not worth it in your view?

I think the gains are real. But there are some reasons not be terribly excited about these. One is that they don’t persist. They decline a little bit by eighth grade, they disappear by the time kids are out of high school. We don’t have good data about kids as they graduate from high school, but what we do have doesn’t show any improvement.

The biggest reason I’m not as excited as some people are about those gains is we’ve had evidence going back to the 1980s that one of the responses that teachers have had to test-based accountability is to take time out of untested subjects and to put it into math and reading. We don’t know how much of that gain in math is because people are teaching math better and how much is because kids aren’t learning about civics.

That’s, in my view, not enough to justify all of the stuff on the other side of the ledger.

When I’ve looked at some studies on the impact of NCLB on students’ social-emotional skills, the impact on teachers’ attitudes in the classrooms, and the impact on voluntary teacher turnover, they haven’t found any negative effects. They also haven’t found positive effects in most cases. But that would seem to at least in one sense undermine the argument that NCLB had big harmful effects on these other outcomes.

I haven’t seen those studies, but I don’t think what you describe does undermine it. What I would like to see is an analysis of long-term trends not just on teacher attrition but on teacher selection. A lot of what I have heard has really been, frankly, anecdotal. I was once a public school teacher and teaching now is utterly unlike what it was when I taught. It seems unlikely that that had no effect on who opts in and who opts out to be a teacher.

I don’t have evidence of this but I suspect that to some extent different types of people are selecting into teaching now than were teaching 30 years ago.

Can you talk about what you see as good versus bad test prep?

Something that Audrey Qualls at the University of Iowa said was, “A student has only mastered something if she can do it when confronted with unfamiliar particulars.”

Think about training pilots — you would never train pilots by putting them in a simulator and then always running exactly the same set of conditions because next time you were in the plane and the conditions were different you’d die. What you want to know is that the pilot has enough understanding and a good enough command of the physical motions and whatnot that he or she can respond to whatever happens to you while you’re up there. That’s not all that distant an analogy from testing.

Bad test prep is test prep that is designed to raise scores on the particular test rather than give kids the underlying knowledge and skills that the test is supposed to capture. It’s absolutely endemic. In fact, districts and states peddle this stuff themselves.

I take it it’s very hard to quantify this test prep phenomenon, though?

It is extremely hard, and there’s a big hole in the research in this area.

Let’s turn from a backward-looking to a forward-looking discussion. What is your take on ESSA? Do you think it’s a step in the right direction?

This may be a little bit simplistic, but I think of ESSA as giving states back a portion of the flexibility they had before No Child Left Behind. It doesn’t give them as much flexibility as they had in 2000.  

It has the potential to substantially reduce pressure, but it doesn’t seem to be changing the basic logic of the system, which is that the thing that will drive school improvement is pushing people to improve test scores. So I’m not optimistic.

One of things that I argue very strongly at the end of the book is that we need to look at a far broader range of, not just outcomes, but aspects of schooling to create an accountability system that will generate more of what we want. ESSA takes one tiny step in that direction: it says you have to have one measure beyond testing and graduation rates. But if you read the statute it almost doesn’t matter what that measure is. The one mandate is that it can’t count as much as test scores — that’s written in the statute. The notion that it means the same thing to monitor the quality of practice or to monitor attendance rates is just absurd

As I’m sure you know, research — including from some of your colleagues at Harvard — has shown that so-called “no-excuses” charter schools in places like Boston, Chicago, and New York City, have led to substantial test score gains and in some cases improvements in four-year college enrollment. Are you skeptical that those gains are the result of genuine learning?

It depends on which test you’re talking about. Some of the no-excuses charter schools drill kids on the state test, so I don’t trust the state test scores for some of those schools. I think it’s entirely plausible that some of those schools are going to affect long-term outcomes because they’re in some cases replacing a very disorderly environment with a very orderly one. In fact, I would say too orderly by quite a margin.

But those reforms are much bigger than just test-based accountability or just the control structure we call charters. It’s a whole host of different things that are going on: different disciplinary policies, different kinds of teacher selection, different kinds of behavioral requirements, all sorts of things.

A lot of the discussion around accountability, including in your book, is about the measures we should be using to identify schools. I’m interested in your take on what happens when a school is identified by whatever system — perhaps by the holistic system you described in the book — as low performing.

The first step is to figure out why is it bad. I would use scores as an opening to a better evaluation of schools. If scores on a good test are low, something is wrong, but we don’t know what. Before we intervene we ought to find out what’s wrong.

This is the Dutch model: school inspections are concentrated on schools that shows signs of having problems, because that’s where the payoff is. I would want to know what’s wrong and then you can design an alternative. In some cases, it may be the teaching staff is too weak. It may be in some cases the teaching staff needs supports they don’t have. It may be like in the case of Baltimore, they need to turn the heat on. Who knows? But I don’t think we can design sensible interventions until we know what the problems are.

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:

 

School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.