Press Release

The proposals released today by the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA) represent a giant step backward in the effort to both raise achievement and close longstanding gaps.

The FEA’s call for different tests for different groups of students should offend every American committed to fairness and equity in education. Their call for demographically-designed assessments – —combined with classroom-, school-, and district-level tests— – mocks the idea of a single high standard for all and would merely obscure achievement gaps from public view, not close them. We only wish that the supporters of this proposal put as much effort into developing constructive proposals aimed at fixing what ails our schools as they have into devising a scheme to hide the fact that too many of our schools are failing to educate too many of our children.

Under this proposal, it’s conceivable that a school might give one test to a white child, another test to a Latino child, and a third test to an African American child. Or that school might decide to administer the same test to all three students, but set different passing scores for each. Either scenario is a fast retreat to the days when schools were allowed to expect less of – —and give less to – —some groups of students.

Most Americans agree that all students are entitled to a high-quality education regardless of which school they attend, the color of their skin, or the income of their parents. But in calling for different systems of measurement for different groups of students, the FEA is rejecting a fundamental principal of American fairness. Would they suggest pediatricians measure the health of these students using different standards? Or should employers have different standards for these students when they face the challenges of the workplace?

We agree that additional measures of learning – —including classroom-based assessments, teacher observations, portfolios, and the like – —are good tools for educators to monitor student progress throughout the school year.  They provide teachers with the real-time information they need to make decisions about where new instructional practices or additional resources should be implemented to help students who are struggling. But these additional variables shouldn’’t be used in a system to measure Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), which is designed to be easily understood by parents, educators and policymakers. And they certainly should never be used to let schools off the hook for poor performance in reading and math, even for just one group of students.

In fact, The Education Trust recognizes the need for our nation’s educators to have better curricular materials, diagnostic tools, and intensive assistance in interpreting student achievement data and acting on it. That’s why we have proposed more than $1 billion in new federal funding to support these efforts. Our recommendations call for the development of strong standards-based curricula, high-quality assessments aligned to those standards and the comprehensive data systems necessary to reliably track student progress over time.

But shifting from clear goals for all students to the mixing of results from various assessments into a single accountability system eliminates the transparency and reliability of the accountability plan that the federal government put in place for Title I schools. The authors argue that these additional measures would provide a richer picture of performance, progress and growth in our schools. But, in truth, they actually muddy things up. At a very young age, most of us tried to paint rich pictures by combining every available color. The result was a disappointing and indistinct brown blob with none of the vividness for which we had hoped. The results of the FEA proposal would be similarly disappointing and indistinct. The difference is that we, as children, did it by mistake; they are doing it on purpose.

The proposals’ claims of inadequacy in the federal law’s accountability system fail to recognize that, despite its other shortcomings, the law in fact requires the use of very large amounts of data to identify schools in need of improvement. It requires measurement of results from at least two exams taken by hundreds – —sometimes even thousands— – of students in each school, every year. Since the law also allows states to use “three-year rolling averages” when calculating school performance, that means in some cases thousands, if not tens of thousands, of exam scores over a three-year period are used to evaluate a particular school’s performance, not ‘two test scores on one day’ as some critics often assert.

In addition to performance in reading and math, the law already insists on at least one additional measure: graduation rates at the high school level, and an elementary measure that’s decided by each state. Moreover, it also allows additional measures to be added at a state’s discretion – —including the same teacher-based assessments, portfolios and performance in other academic subjects for which these proposals argue. The only thing states can NOT do under current law is use these additional measures to grant schools a hall pass for low-level performance in the fundamental areas of reading and mathematics.

By suggesting that we give schools that miss AYP extra credit for making gains in other subject areas, the authors of these proposals dilute the power and transparency of the federal law, creating an environment where everything “matters,” but nothing counts. We need to expect more from all groups of students, not less. And we need to give every child the schools they need to succeed, rather than pretending they already have them.