Education Reform

NEPC: The Failure of Test-Based Accountabilty

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On behalf of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Kevin Welner and William Mathis have written an excellent overview of the failure of standardized testing as the driver of educational reform.

Here is the summary:

“In this Policy Memo, Kevin Welner and William Mathis discuss the broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform. Yet the debates in Washington over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act largely ignore the harm and misdirection of these test-focused reforms. As a result, the proposals now on the table simply gild a demonstrably ineffective strategy, while crowding out policies with proven effectiveness. Deep-rooted trends of ever-increasing social and educational needs, as well as fewer or stagnant resources, will inevitably lead to larger opportunity gaps and achievement gaps. Testing will document this, but it will do nothing to change it. Instead, the gaps will only close with sustained investment and improvement based on proven strategies that directly increase children’s opportunities to learn.”

Congress is about to pour more billions into mandating the testing of every child in grades 3-8, every year. Given the research consensus documented here, the question is: Why?

The report begins:

“Today’s 21-year-olds were in third grade in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act became law. For them and their younger siblings and neighbors, test-driven accountability policies are all they’ve known. The federal government entrusted their educations to an unproven but ambitious belief that if we test children and hold educators responsible for improving test scores, we would have almost everyone scoring as “proficient” by 2014. Thus, we would achieve “equality.” This approach has not worked.

“Yet over the past 13 years, Presidents Bush and Obama remained steadfastly committed to test-based policies. These two administrations have offered federal grants through Race to the Top,2 so-called Flexibility Waivers under NCLB,3 School Improvement Grants,4 and various other programs to push states, districts, and schools to line up behind policies that use these same test scores in high-stakes evaluations of teachers and principals, in addition to the NCLB focus on schools. The proposed new Teacher Preparation Regulations under Title II of the Higher Education Act now attempt to expand the testing regime to teacher education programs.5 These expansions of test-driven accountability policies require testing even beyond that mandated by NCLB.

“Not surprisingly, current debates over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), of which NCLB is the most recent iteration, now center around specific assessment issues such as how many tests should be given and which grades should be tested, as well as the respective roles of state and federal governments.6 Largely lost in these debates is whether test-based accountability policies will produce equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling. This NEPC Policy Memo explains why they will not.7 Instead, we argue that as a nation we must engage in a serious, responsible conversation about evidence-based approaches that have the potential to meaningfully improve student opportunities and school outcomes.”

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