Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What’s wrong with “accountability” in education

How could anyone credibly fight the tide on this subject? Well, I'm not the only one worried about what the accountability movement has done and is doing to K–12 education.

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’” said Dr. Diane Ravitch in the New York Times education section in March 2010. She is not a typical critic, having served in the first Bush administration’s Department of Education and having been a true believer in the power of standardized testing to improve education. Over the years, however, she gradually became convinced that “Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools.”

How can this be? We expected tests both to measure accurately what our children were learning and to improve their learning, through some mystical combination of shame, pressure, and market forces. But we have neither measured accurately nor improved outcomes; in fact, the attempt has apparently only made things worse.

What have we measured?

The problem with standardized testing is that we want quick results (so that they can be useful in improving instruction) without spending too much. Both criteria push us toward multiple-choice testing, which can be machine graded. Multiple-choice tests, though, have real limitations. They tend to test only for easy-to-measure, low-level skills, and their results may not accurately reflect what children know and can do, due to poor design.

It is possible to design better tests, which will more accurately measure complex skills, but never assume that’s what we’ve got! Instead, narrowly focused, high-stakes testing has produced a laser-like focus on narrowly focused, high-stakes tests. We don’t simply “teach to the test”; now we also spend time and effort on teaching test-taking skills. The tool intended to improve schooling has now become its point.

How’s that working?

Given the punitive consequences of not making “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB rules (which require that, as in the fictional Lake Wobegon, all of our children will be above average by 2014), “progress” has been pursued at nearly any cost. We teach only what is assessed by the tests, states have gradually watered down standards so as to inflate achievement, and outright cheating has become more common.

While average student achievement has shown remarkable gains over the years of NCLB-required testing, U.S. students continue to fall behind in international comparison tests such as NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA. Clearly, both sets of results cannot be valid. In recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing of 15-year-olds, U.S. students ranked 15th out of 29 in reading literacy, 24th out of 29 in problem solving, 25th out of 30 in mathematics literacy, and 21st out of 30 in scientific literacy. And the really bad news is that the PISA tests are good tests! In order to do well on them, students cannot simply recall factual knowledge; they must extend what they know into unfamiliar settings to solve problems. Students who do well on them have also done well in life — the ultimate test of the success of schooling. In addition, analysis of data shows that, unlike here, many nations (Canada, some Asian and European countries) achieve not only high average scores but also scores that do not vary by socio-economic status: they have realized the ideal of uniformly high student achievement that NCLB set for us.

Where did we go wrong?

We might start with where other nations went right. (See “Short Sighted: How America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Impedes Improvement.”) When Germany did poorly on the 2000 PISA, with large achievement gaps for poor and immigrant children, it launched a nationwide study of proven educational policy and practice, followed by a detailed plan for reform that was implemented with support from all sectors of society. By the 2006 PISA, their students’ performance had improved dramatically. This appropriate, communal response, rather than blaming and punishing, is what we need as a nation.

Year after year, we have scrubbed from our classrooms anything that is not explicitly assessed by our achievement tests. You get what you measure — and we are measuring mostly low-level recall rather than application of complex skills in novel situations. Our children are drilled relentlessly on test fodder, but not encouraged or allowed to follow their interests into the side lanes that excite their curiosity, motivate their hard work, and lead them to satisfying and productive careers. Is it any wonder that they are disengaged, unmotivated, and mentally (if not actually) dropping out? Is it any wonder that half of teachers, demoralized by their demonization, leave the profession within five years?

Dr. Ravitch (as noted in the NYT article) outlines a better way: “Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect. They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We’re on the wrong track.”


  1. Ok, you've explained our problem, and increased my pessimism about US students.
    It has always seemed to me that the "third rail" of education is the parents/home education. Educators can't be seen to hold the parents responsible too much or it looks like they're just playing the blame game.
    Testing is a necessary evil, but is only one way of measuring what students have learned.

  2. I do think that, back in the day, schools got credit for a lot that kids brought from home; now, schools get blamed for what they no longer get at home. This is not really meant as a shot at parents — the world of childhood has changed dramatically. It is the norm for mothers to work outside the home now, and the quality of daycare varies even more dramatically than the quality of public schooling. Everyone is too rushed and overburdened to give children the kind of attention they need to thrive. And (this is no small consideration) we are well on our way to becoming a non-reading culture.

  3. Ok, we're all too busy. But too busy to read a bedtime story to your kid? Ten minutes! If parents do nothing else but teach their kids to read for pleasure, they do enough to instill a lifelong reading habit. That may be why Facebook will save the world. At least kids read a tiny bit when they are active on Facebook.