Accountability & Test Scores – The Black Hole of Ed Reform

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Recently, in Atlanta, 11 teachers were found guilty of racketeering for manipulating student test scores. At about the same time, in New York, Governor Cuomo passed a law that would set in place teacher assessment measures strongly tied to student test scores. Opponents of the governor see this as a draconian policy not backed up by research on teacher assessments. Others believe that “bad” teachers exist in schools and so we need to strengthen “accountability” to weed those teachers out.

What I see is a spinning black hole that’s sucking the life out of meaningful innovation and effective reform in education. On the one side sit presidents, governors, mayors, district superintendents, charter school investors, billionaires and their supporters calling for greater accountability. On the other side are public school teachers and parents unhappy with the negative side-effects of high stakes testing. Each side blames the other for the problems that exist now.

Up until recently I stood squarely within the public teacher circle, writing about the problems with Common Core and current education reforms. Living in Japan since 1993, I have watched from a distance, amazed that so much of the research and successful innovation I was involved with in the 1990s has been ignored.

After visiting New York last month, and talking with some public school teachers, I now wonder if a part of the problem might be the blame game itself, where effective “accountability” won’t arise until both sides come together and share responsibility. Those of us who defend public education and blame Bill Gates, Common Core, charter school hedge fund investors, Andrew Cuomo and Arne Duncan have to take more responsibility for the widespread cheating and grade inflation by school teachers that has been going on.

I talked with a young public high school school teacher recently who described the problems he observed with students from low SES backgrounds who had constantly been given passing grades over the years, by teachers unwilling to fail them. This is a huge problem, one that the media and reformers point to as a reason for why we need greater teacher accountability, stronger punishments, more rigorous education and charter schools.

Those who promote current reforms are right, it’s a very real problem, and public school teachers need to share responsibility for this. What reformers ignore, however, is the role that high stakes testing and misguided education policies by both the Bush and Obama administrations appear to have played in co-creating this problem. Ann Campbell explored this issue, two years ago:

“Some say that the real culprit is standardised testing – more specifically, the close relationship between students’ test scores and how American public schools are funded. Part of this problematic model is linked to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2001. Under NCLB, district test scores had to improve every year, with an aim for 100% proficiency in basic subjects by 2014. If a certain percentage of students don’t do well enough, greater demands are placed on schools. These demands were intended to bolster student performance, but they cost additional money, and schools are rarely given sufficient funding to cover these costs. And if students’ performance didn’t improve, money may be withheld from struggling districts.

Whether standardized tests accurately measure student performance is a highly controversial topic in education policy. Regardless, standardized test scores are the benchmark for determining if public schools receive desperately-needed dollars or are given the flexibility to spend them for self-identified needs. In Atlanta, newly hired principals were told they had to meet testing benchmarks within three years to be considered successful. Improved scores also meant financial bonuses. By having such a simplistic equation for educational funding, a system can be easily manipulated. The door is open for corruption.”

Based on my knowledge of research on this topic, I agree with Campbell’s analysis. Recent top-down reform policies ignore decades of research on the dangers of high-stakes testing. They employ an “operant conditioning” model of motivation, rewards and punishments that set this problem spinning in motion.

American public school educators then fed the growing problem further by widespread manipulation and inflation of test scores for low performing students. The scores became more important than the skills and learning they were supposed to represent. This in turn led to reformers calls for greater teacher accountability, national standards, high-stakes tests, school closings and outside assessments.

From the perspective of public school teachers, national achievement goals linked to high-stakes testing set them up for failure, as low-performing public schools were shut down and charter schools put up in their place. But many charter schools have been plagued with similar problems, because there too test scores and assessments hold so much power.

The “fault” appears to lie with neither public or charter schools, but with the high-stakes assessment and accountability model that was put into place. As Richard M. Ryan & Kirk W. Brown described in a review of research in the Handbook of Competence and Motivation, in 2005:

“HST (high-stakes testing) policies reflect particular theories of motivation and achievement. Specifically, high-stakes reform approaches represent a view of competence promotion and teaching that reflects an operant theory of motivation and a view of educational outcomes that is more closely aligned with performance goals rather than mastery goals; that is, the government policy is founded on the idea that making rewards and punishments more salient and contingent on test score outcomes is the most appropriate and effective way of ensuring greater student effort and learning, and more effective teaching. As such, this social policy enacts a behavioristic motivational philosophy…

In contrast, several theories in contemporary motivational psychology predict that attempting to enhance achievement in schools through such external controls will yield some highly negative results, based on properties of the type of motivation it incites… Our review suggests that, to date, HST has not, in general, produced positive outcomes… In fact, some of the behaviors these contingencies incite are part of the problem, such as “teaching to the tests,” elimination of developmentally enriching activities that are not likely to be tested, manipulation of targeted standards, and “push outs” of low performers from the pool of test takers.”

The young high school teacher that I talked with in New York described how more than half of the low SES students in his advanced science class lacked the math skills they needed to take the course. Leaving no child behind (and covering their own behinds) numerous public school teachers over the years had given students passing grades not reflective of their actual skills. When they failed to pass his course this teacher was judged as being ineffective by Governor Cuomo and N.Y. City teacher assessments linked to Duncan & Obama’s Race to the Top policies.

Trying to place the blame on any single teacher or reform policy in a case like this is impossible. Unwise state, city, national and local public school policies over the last decade met up with low SES conditions and ineffective teaching by others to create a perfect storm in this young school teacher’s life, labeling him an “bad” teacher. As Stanford University researcher Edward Haertal described, in regards to teacher assessments based on student test scores:

“Teachers who are in schools where there is a strong academic climate, where the peer culture is supporting academics, where the parents are supporting academics, where the teachers work together and learn from each other have a vastly easier time of it, than teachers who’s circumstances are the converse. And we can’t rely simply on some regression equation to iron all that out.” 

In a sense, a vicious circle has been created in the United States, where grades and teacher assessments for low performing students have lost their meaning and intended function, as a way to motivate honest and meaningful effort so as to promote mastery of subject material.

Continuing to collect data and rely on student test scores as a way of measuring teacher accountability (and blaming only one person or side of the reform battle) misses the bigger picture, and the need for educators, researchers and government policy makers to come together to ground U.S. education reforms in real research, local situational factors and evidence from the field.

Most importantly, those who call for accountability need to be accountable themselves, they need to understand that standards, reform policies and data collection not supported by research can perpetuate problems or make them worse. It’s not that reform policy makers alone are to blame, but when people in positions of power fail to investigate the complex causes of problems carefully, they can set greater chaos and dysfunction in motion.

~Christopher Chase~

“As recounted by The New Yorker, at one middle school, the principal informed teachers they had to cheat to keep the school above the NCLB threshold. Dissenters were transferred to other schools or placed on a track to be terminated. The cheating became routinized, with teachers tearing open sealed test sheets with razor blades and fixing the answers. They justified it to themselves as doing it for the school, for the children even. The tests didn’t properly evaluate student performance in their view, and the kids needed stability, not upheaval through shifting schools every couple years. 

None of this excuses the misconduct, it sets a context for it. And it matches almost precisely what went on at every level of the mortgage market before, during and after the housing bubble. Mortgage brokers used Wite-Out and exacto knives to falsify income tax data for unqualified borrowers to get them into loans. They employed Coke vending machines as light boards to trace forgeries, putting people into garbage loans they didn’t purchase. The loans got sold to Wall Street banks, which routinely lied to investors, who purchased bundles of mortgages packaged into securities, by telling them that the loan quality exceeded underwriting standards.”   ~David Dayen, The Biggest Outrage in Atlanta’s Crazy Teacher Scandal

“The President of the United States and his Secretary of Education are violating one of the most fundamental principles concerning test use: Tests should be used only for the purpose for which they were developed. If they are to be used for some other purpose, then careful attention must be paid to whether or not this purpose is appropriate.” ~Dr. Gerald Bracey, 

“One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn.” ~Diane Marie

The rewards and punishments that prompt an urgency to raise test scores lead to a narrowing of teaching, and therefore learning, and foster classroom dynamics that tend to decrease student motivation and engagement, as well as teacher morale and creativity. Perhaps more importantly, because HST neither provides a good basis for intrinsic motivation nor offers students optimal challenges (because the standards and methods of demonstrating performance are the same for all), reforms based on HST have been associated with increased school dropouts. Those dropouts are especially salient among those already at risk, including the urban poor, students with special needs, and those for whom English is a second language―the very children whom many HST advocates have said they do not want to leave behind.” ~Richard M. Ryan & Kirk W. Brown; Legislating Competence: High-Stakes Testing Policies and Their Relations with Psychological Theories and Research, in Handbook of Competence and Motivation, 2005.


Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing * More Than Just Test Scores, by Henry Levin * Dr. James P. Comer, Pioneer of Successful School Reform * Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery  * Understanding How Our Brains Learn  * Common Ingredients of Successful School Reform * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education *Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * Real Learning is a Creative Process  *   * Why VAMs are Unreliable Measures for Evaluating Teachers * Schools That Learn – Peter Senge * Standardizing Education – Common Core’s Hidden Agenda *

About myselfFrom 1988 to 1993, I worked on my doctoral degree in Child & Adolescent Development at Stanford University’s School of Education. For three years during that time I was a research assistant with Prof. Henry Levin’s Accelerated Schools Project. After graduating from Stanford in 1993, I moved to Japan, where I have been teaching English language and culture at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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4 Responses to Accountability & Test Scores – The Black Hole of Ed Reform

  1. Please check out this community/magazine on Medium: I think your work and ideas would be a valuable contribution. The editor is Shawn White, a SPED teacher in New England,

  2. vavrik2014 says:

    I could not agree more with this view and totally support it. However, there have been some cases where a child failed a course and the administration passed the student on in Colorado. I do believe some teachers are trying to do what is right, but they get told to do it different which is also part of the problem. One teacher in Denver Public Schools had to resign before he could tell what happened. If he didn’t, they would of fired him. It is a tangled web that has been woven.

  3. Pingback: I M HO | I'm a Writer, Yes I Am

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