Teachers Unions, Education Advocacy Groups Call for New Accountability System

Oct 30, 2014 by

By Allie Bidwell –

Parents across the country have withdrawn their children in droves  from multiple, high-stakes standardized tests. Teachers, too, are pushing back against annual student assessments that have the potential to undermine their careers. Even entire school districts are refusing to administer the pressure-packed exams, even if it means leaving federal money on the table.

When even the federal government questions whether there’s too much testing, a new question surfaces: how should students, teachers and schools be held accountable?

[READ: Study: High Standardized Test Scores Don’t Translate to Better Cognition]

The nation’s two largest teachers unions – along with school administration organizations, business advocacy groups and school equity leaders – on Tuesday announced a new framework for accountability that focuses more on a holistic “support-and-improve” model than the longstanding “test-and-punish” mindset that’s commonplace in schools nationwide.

“You need a paradigm shift to match the paradigm shift that’s happened in education,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “The American Dream is slipping out of our grasp because we don’t actually do the things we say are important.”

The New Accountability framework centers around making changes to three central concepts in educational accountability: standardized testing, teacher evaluation and school resource equity. While it doesn’t put forth detailed recommendations for how states and local districts should proceed, the framework is intended as a foundation for future conversation, Weingarten says.

“Everything else is changing, but the accountability system that dates back to No Child Left Behind, [and] put on steroids by Race to the Top, is pretty much this rudimentary system that simply says how the child does on an English and math test … is the basis upon which [student, teacher and school performance] is judged,” Weingarten says.

It’s also not common to see sometimes opposing groups with different stakes in education banding together over a single concern.

“It really sends the message that this is a movement from all parts of the educational system, including business,” says Helen Soule, executive director of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a group that works with business leaders and policymakers. “It’s a very eclectic group of people showing that everybody is saying this is important and we really need to move the needle on this.”

Standardized testing became more common in schools after No Child Left Behind took effect more than 10 years ago, as a way to hold schools accountable for their students’ performance – particularly underserved and vulnerable student populations such as special education students and English language learners. What was once championed as a way to independently measure student achievement and teacher performance in an objective way now dominates conversations about what’s wrong with public schooling, even from those who initially supported the move.

[SEE ALSO: Report: Standardized Testing Debate Should Focus on Local School Districts]

Now, parents worry the frequency of testing is excessive, teachers see it as restrictive and policymakers worry the emphasis on test scores for accountability and funding purposes unintentionally prompt states to lower their educational standards. A 2013 poll from PDK International and Gallup found three-quarters of Americans think the increase in standardized testing has either hurt or had no impact on student achievement. Now, more than two-thirds of public school parents say the tests are helpful to teachers.

A broad coalition of education groups think the New Accountability framework is a start in the right direction.  In addition to the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, administrative organizations – such as the School Superintendents Association, the National Association of Boards of Education and the National Association of Secondary School Principals – and other equity and advocacy organizations have signed a statement of support of the framework.

Rather than advocating for an outright repeal of standardized testing, the partnering organizations say they want fewer, better tests that more accurately measure what schools and business leaders say is the most important objective for students who’ll soon have to compete in the high-tech, global economy:  whether they can problem solve, work collaboratively and apply academic concepts in  different situations.

Nationwide, teachers, parents and students have been revolting against the use of standardized tests in schools. Thousands of parents have  opt out of the annual state-mandated tests – the number of students who declined to take state assessment tests in New York, for example, exploded from 10,000 in 2013 to 60,000 in 2014. In Florida’s Lee County, the school board voted to reject state testing, but reversed  its decision less than a week later. The board of education in Colorado Springs was also among the first school districts to stand against assessment tests when it voted in September to opt out most of its 30,000 students, the Washington Post reported.

As of late, the opt-out movement has reached some state and federal leaders.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy in September announced a plan to reduce standardized testing in schools, suggesting  that college entrance exams such as the SAT could satisfy federal requirements for school and teacher assessments. Former President Bill Clinton echoed the sentiments of many leaders at a Sept. 23 event in New York City, saying tests should be limited.

“I think doing one in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right,” he said, according to The Huffington Post.

Even Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama have chimed in, praising a recent announcement from the Chief Council of State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that they would cut back on testing and examine their own systems to make sure the tests are meaningful.

[MORE: Education Secretary Arne Duncan Loosens Reins on Teacher Evaluations, Testing]

“While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve,” Obama said in a statement. “Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.”

The administration also offered an olive branch to state education agencies when Duncan announced during the summer that the Department of Education would give some states an extra year of flexibility before incorporating student test scores into teacher evaluations.

“I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support and more,” Duncan said in August. “Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress.”

In order to receive waivers from certain accountability requirements under No Child Left Behind, states must implement teacher and principal evaluation systems with a greater emphasis on measures of student growth. But rather than focusing on test scores, the groups involved in proposing a new accountability framework say state and federal leaders should evaluate teacher preparation, career development and retention, according to Joseph Bishop, director of policy for the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, an initiative of the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

“We’ve been obsessed with tenure, and teachers and tests, but we totally overlook resource equity or tests that matter, ensuring we have well-prepared teachers who have been well-mentored,” Bishop says. “We’ve been looking for shortcuts and when it comes to public education, we’re not going to find them, especially when standards are being raised.”

For business leaders, a concern over testing and accountability comes from a recognized need to better prepare students for careers, Soule says.

“It’s our motivation to really articulate that this is an economic issue, and a development issue in order to prepare our students for the future,” Soule says. “[Businesses] want people to certainly have some knowledge, but they need people who can critically think, transfer that knowledge into multiple occupations, communicate what they are doing and collaborate across the world – and those are not even things we are measuring or testing for, or showing they are valuable.”

[RELATED: Famed Education Analysts Blast Fixation on Testing, Data]

Weingarten pointed to community-based models of education that focus on a more comprehensive approach to responsibility and accountability. The New York Performance Standards Consortium, for example, is a group of more than two dozen schools that allow students to use portfolios or capstone projects to move from grade to grade, rather than a passing grade on an annual exam.

“You see this learning has prepared kids for college and career in a much deeper way,” Weingarten says. “The notion of deeper learning, it’s actually far more robust than what we’re doing with the bubble-type tests.”

via Teachers Unions, Education Advocacy Groups Call for New Accountability System – US News.

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