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Accountability Debate Taking Place on Different Planets

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

Today, at an event hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group of advocates and academics including Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford and Gene Wilhoit, formerly of the Council of Chief State School Officers, announced a "new approach on accountability and testing" (aka 51st state) that would, among other things, scale back annual statewide summative tests and increase the use of local assessments for purposes of accountability.

Weirdly enough, over at the Center American Progress, a new study issued today finds that it is districts much more so than states that account for what many consider "over-testing" taking place now in America's public schools. Which seems to suggest that the 51st state proposal is singling out the wrong level of government if what it wants to do is decrease the amount of testing. 

We should encourage local innovations in how we assess students. If that's what Darling-Hammond, Wilhoit et al. are trying to do, I'm all for it. But attempts to substitute myriad local tests for valid and reliable statewide assessments for purposes of accountability are just as bad an idea on a policy level now as they have been every other time they've been proposed.

If we revert to a patchwork of standards and assessments that vary according to political pressure, or societal and community biases, or simply the lack of local capacity to create valid and reliable tests, we will longer be able to make apples to apples comparisons about school performance. In turn, the schools in which poor and minority students are enrolled are likely to look better than they actually are. Badly needed investments in teaching and learning and in formulating and implementing fundamental reforms in chronically failing schools will then be at even greater risk than they are now. 

You don't have to take my word on whether or not we can make valid comparisons across schools with a bunch of new local assessments.

Back about a decade or so, an esteemed panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences (an organization that, to put it mildly, has never been accused of overzealousness when it comes to student testing) was tasked with answering that very question:

“Can scores on one test be made interpretable in terms of scores on other tests? Can we have more uniform data about student performance from our healthy hodgepodge of state and local programs?

And the result was:

“After deliberation that lasted nine months, involving intensive review of the technical literature and consideration of every possible methodological nuance, the committee’s answer was a blunt ‘no.’”*

Absent some huge shift in the technical and methodological literature, one would have to conclude this is no less true now than it was a decade ago. End of debate? Don't bet on it. There's much more to come.


*Michael Feuer “Moderating the Debate,” Harvard Education Press, 2006. 

DFER News Roundup

DFER News Roundup

By Stephanie Doctrow, Communications Coordinator and Web Editor and Bianca Dorsey, Communications Project Coordinator

DFER Seen & Heard:

  • Policy Director Charlie Barone’s piece on Bill Clinton’s recent remarks related to public charter schools and accountability made EdWeek’s Friday Reading List
  • Chicago students “urgently need access to more high-quality charter schools, particularly in underserved communities,” DFER-IL’s Rebeca Nieves Huffman said in the Chicago Sun-Times. Huffman also commented on the announcement that CPS will not consider plans for any new public charter schools this fall in Catalyst Chicago
  • “With every election and every legislative session, we the voters are responsible for getting the schools we want for Washington’s students,” DFER-WA’s Lisa Macfarlane writes in The Seattle Times.
  • CTU chief Karen Lewis “shouldn't continue to be tone deaf” regarding her conflict of interest between serving as a mayoral candidate and teacher contract negotiator, Huffman tells POLITICO’s Morning Education


But what about failing schools?

Source: Associated Press

By Nicole Brisbane, DFER-NY State Director

It’s the fourth week of school for NYC Public Schools, and we’ve long awaited Chancellor Fariña’s plan for turning around the schools with the largest number of students who are not meeting proficiency on state exams - schools we know serve significant populations of poor and minority students. Finally, the new plan was revealed yesterday at P.S. 503/506 in Brooklyn.

Fariña’s plan started strong with a revamp of the letter grade system previously assigned to schools. The old letter grade system was initially intended to be a tool for internal use, showing schools’ growth on test scores. But in reality, the system provided very little useful information for parents.


USDOE Guidance on Equity A Big Step. But Some Provisions Raise Concerns About Political Will

by Charles Barone, Policy Director

Democrats for Education Reform applauds the U.S. Department of Education for the guidance it issued today to help ensure equal educational opportunity for all students. Resource equity is a key area where we, along with many others, have asked the Obama Administration to place greater emphasis. We're thrilled to see today's action.


Economically Disadvantaged Students in NY's Public Charter Schools Surpass Average Math Proficiency Rates for All Students Statewide

(Download the PDF for a closer view here.)

Created by DFER's Communications Coordinator and Web Editor, Stephanie Doctrow

From DFER's Blog Series: Infographic Tuesdays

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