The school data problem: what we have vs. what we need

Nov 6, 2013 by

By Jack Schneider –

For the past two years, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been striking bargains with state departments of education, waiving some of the most unreasonable and restrictive accountability provisions of federal education law. Desperate for greater flexibility, the vast majority of states ultimately hammered out deals with him. And in the process, they gained greater flexibility in the use of federal funds, in creating new performance indexes, and in outlining more attainable aims. Yet as educators in those 43 states are beginning to find out, one key component of life in the age of No Child Left Behind—the dominance of standardized tests—isn’t going anywhere. Tests still reign supreme.

Congress’s 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind, gave states 12 years to produce universal proficiency as measured by standardized test scores. And with 2014 just around the corner, none have come anywhere close. Without waivers from the law, each would lose its share of federal aid for low-income students—an outcome that both Democrats and Republicans see as totally unacceptable. Yet a faint-hearted Congress has continually failed to act. So, out of necessity, Duncan has stepped in to stave off the doomsday scenario. But he has also taken it upon himself in this waiver process to decide what better accountability measures might look like, insisting on continued heavy reliance on standardized test scores despite all that we’ve learned in the past decade.

Standardized tests given to K-12 students are not without merit. They can function as clear indicators of basic academic competencies. And they can play an important role as diagnostic tools. But they capture only a fraction of life in schools. Built almost exclusively around multiple-choice questions, such tests tell us nothing about a student’s ability to think or write or persuade, to perform experiments or conduct research, to paint, or to play an instrument. They provide no insight into a school’s social climate, its academic orientation, or its general culture. And, as any teacher can explain, the testing and accountability movement has also been plagued by a number of unintended consequences. The school curriculum has narrowed. Test-prep now takes up an inordinate amount of instructional time. And teacher autonomy has withered.

It is clear why Arne Duncan and like-minded reformers favor standardized tests. Along with high-stakes accountability mechanisms, such tests have given policy leaders at the state and federal levels an unprecedented ability to pry open the classroom and control instructional delivery. Equally important to them, standardized tests have yielded a cascade of data that policy elites have assembled into a picture of school quality—constructing evaluative report cards, and even tying student achievement scores to particular teachers as a means of calculating “value” added.

via The school data problem: what we have vs. what we need.

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