Monday, March 16, 2015

Spellings Remains Steadfastly Wrong

US News ran another of its nifty Debate Club features on Monday, this time tackling the question, "Does No Child Left Behind's Testing Regime Work?"

Arguing "no" were the presidents of America's two large teachers' unions. Sticking up for NCLB's test-and-punish regime were Cheryl Oldham from the US Chamber of Commerce, and Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush's secretary of education.

Spellings uses her time at the debate podium to demonstrate that she remains steadfastly devoted to the same bad policy ideas that she promoted back in the day, still without support. But her piece lets her tick off all the standard bad arguments for keeping NCLB on its same doomed path of educational destruction.

The success of every student in reading and doing math on grade level is vital to the future success of our nation. 

That's the very first sentence, and while it's a piece of the NCLB canon, after all these years, there still isn't a lick of proof that it's true. It certainly wasn't true in the past, where large chunks of the US population could not do either of those things and yet the country still did pretty well. She may well want to argue that times have changed, and I wouldn't disagree-- but there's still no proof that there's any linkage between eight-year-olds who read on grade level and national success (and what do we mean by "success" anyway).

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card, show that No Child Left Behind has added to the focus on poor and minority students and resulted in increases in their achievement. 

Lots of smart people have looked at the same data and failed to see the improvement that Spellings likes to tout.

Prior to the federal requirement for annual assessments that was instituted in 2002, few states had assessments in place. That means that few students had the necessary information to truly meet the needs of each and every child.

Because....? Teachers were incapable of evaluating student progress? No educational measure known to man could possibly be as awesome as a big fat federal test?

Annual, comparable, valid, reliable statewide assessments give educators and policymakers the ability to focus resources on problem areas, find strategies that work and reward results.

After an over a decade, educators and policymakers have not managed to do any of those things (unless, by "focus resources" you mean "unleash privatizers upon"). I have a standing offer for any reformster to name a single pedagogical strategy that has been discovered by the testing program and then scaled up into schools across the nation. The closest thing we have is fairly widespread adoption of test prep techniques, but all those do is teach students how to do better on tests. Is test-taking our nation's educational aspiration?

Spellings also likes the tale of how, pre-NCLB, nobody knew anything about how schools that served poor and minority students were under-served, under-resourced, and under-funded. Once test results came out, minority children could no longer fall through the cracks. Perhaps you remember that year that state and federal government unleashed a wave of financial support, delivering on the promise that our poorest schools would be funded just as well as our richest ones. Oh, wait. That never actually happened.

Did (and do) some of our nation's schools do a terrible job of serving poor and minority students? Absolutely. But NCLB 1) did not find troubled schools that nobody ever knew were troubled nor 2) lead to a redirection of resources to those schools.

According to the Nation’s Report Card, Hispanic and African-American nine-year-olds grew by two grade levels in reading between 1999 and 2008.

Did they? What was the rate of improvement prior to 1999? And why are we counting from 1999 when NCLB didn't take effect until 2003? How much of the wonderful gainage she cites came before NCLB even had a chance to affect student results?

Our main concern must be students. Timely and transparent reporting of data is the only way to keep the focus where it belongs, on increasing student achievement. How else will we know whether they are prepared for college or a good job after high school? How else will we ensure that they aren’t being pushed through the system by those who were elected to ensure they received the best possible education and opportunity for the future? 

"Increased student achievement" simply means "higher standardized test scores." And all those "How else" questions? Standardized test scores don't provide answers to any of them. This is like declaring "We must keep polishing our bicycles. How else will we know if our vest still has no sleeves?"

The Texas Senate Education Committee recently unanimously approved legislation that would let high school kids receive their diploma without having demonstrated that they have the basic skills and knowledge to be successful in attending college, work or in life.

Did anybody know how to measure those things with a test? Any proof that such a test exists? Because I'd bet that if any such test exists, it is stapled to a Yeti riding on the back of a centaur.

The argument for it is that nearly 30,000 seniors will be unable to pass the exams and therefore will be limited in their future opportunities. But when we eliminate the requirement that assesses their college and job readiness, how successful can we expect their future opportunities to be? It is a cruel trick to suggest they are ready for life when the data show otherwise. 

It is also a cruel trick to insist that you know whether they will be successful or not when there is in fact no proof, evidence, research or tea leaf reading to support the idea that the single narrow test of some math and reading skills is an accurate predictor of a child's future.

Also, what was the plan for those 30K seniors. They were going to flunk high school and then.... what? Not take the GED (nobody is passing the new Pearsonized GED these days). Take an entire senior year over again just to take a single test?

The question we should be asking is why the same student who cannot pass a ninth or tenth grade level test is receiving passing grades in the classroom.

Orrrr.... we could ask why a test claims a passing student is actually failing. If a large number of students fail a test in my class, particularly if all other indicators show they're doing well with the material, then I don't look at the students-- I look at the test.

We must use this opportunity to move education forward and not dilute the progress that has been made.

The "we can't turn back and waste our accomplishments so far" argument is special because it is an argument used to oppose NCLB back in the day and Common Core more recently. But somehow back then the reformsters thought that new and awesome things were worth a little chaos and disorder. Now suddenly they are huge fans of inertia. It should not be news to anybody that when you are doing something that doesn't work, you should think about not doing it any more.

Look, some of these would be great things to say if they represented reality. But the standardized test does not become an accurate measure of a student's entire life prospects just because you say so, and while it would be nice if the test results were used to improve education for underserved students, we've been at this for over a decade and it hasn't happened yet.

Spelling's paean to NCLB testing is a news broadcast from an alternate universe. Read the pieces by Garcia and Weingarten instead.


  1. Randi still doesn't seem to get it. She seems to think we just need "better tests."

    I liked Lily's focus on equalizing educational opportunity and that a child getting a good education to be successful in life shouldn't "depend on living in the right zip code." Of course, the privateers say that's what they're for, to remedy that. And I thought her questions to use as a "dashboard of indicators" for accountability are good. But I don't see anyone mentioning (since it doesn't seem to be sinking in) that the ASA has stated clearly, with reasons, that VAMs are not valid indicators of individual teacher performance.

  2. I also liked this that Lily said: "We must allow educators, parents, students and communities to be a part of the education decision-making process and have a stronger voice in the conversations about what happens in their schools and classrooms when it comes to testing, teaching and learning."