Skip to main content

Janresseger: Can We Unlearn the Test-and-Punish Lexicon No Child Left Behind Taught Us and Demand Reform?

I have been reading Beyond ESSA, a new report from the National Education Policy Center and the Beyond Test Scores Project, a new report on an old, old subject: the deep and abiding problems with test-based school accountability. (Find the full report at the end of Valerie Strauss’s July 13 column.)

The researchers begin: “Since 2002, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was reauthorized as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), all states have been required to use student standardized tests scores as a means of holding schools accountable. Although the most recent reauthorization, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), thoughtfully addressed some glaring problems that had arisen under NCLB, its reauthorization (in 2015) was greatly overdue and it ultimately preserved most of NCLB ‘s test-focused approach… Despite some modifications made in the transition from NCLB to ESSA, federal law requires states to take a high-stakes and often punitive approach.”

The report names a number of problems with test-and-punish school accountability, including the following: “The theory of change underlying the past two decades of accountability has presumed that more pressure on educators and school leaders will lead inexorably to better results. This has not come to pass… (W)hen coupled with the narrow design of present assessment and accountability systems, focusing chiefly on standardized test scores, which often indicate more about out-of-school factors—these stakes can lead to actions that are directly opposed by the communities ostensibly being served. School closures, for instance, have disproportionately affected Black and brown families, as well as low-income families who have often fought to keep their schools open.”

The report, written by academics seeking to make instruction and assessment more equitable, prescribes six reforms to improve public school accountability and make it fairer for students and communities: align assessments with “goals for high-quality curricula and instruction; design a system with reciprocal accountability; ensure that representative community members play a meaningful role in the system; move toward a broader array of school quality indicators; ensure interpretable and actionable results; (and) design a system that will evolve and improve.”

These seem to be worthy reforms, particularly the recommendation for reciprocal accountability: “We embrace the idea of reciprocal accountability, meaning that while the system holds schools accountable for the education of students, it must correspondingly hold elected officials and other leaders accountable for providing schools with what they need to succeed. Leaders, and those who put leaders in power, cannot reasonably demand unidirectional accountability; a system’s demands on schools must be linked to the provision of capacity, support, and resources.” A consideration of reciprocal accountability seems particularly important this week when a Republican-dominated U.S. House subcommittee has proposed slashing Title I and increasing funding for the federal Charter Schools Program in the federal budget.

I wish I thought members of Congress and legislators across the states were prepared to consider and act on these experts’ recommendations for ending test-based public school accountability. I worry that now, two decades after No Child Left Behind, the language and biases of test-and-punish school reform have seriously poisoned our understanding of what’s happening in our nation’s public schools. Before the kind of reforms endorsed by this report could possibly be introduced, let alone passed in Congress and most of the state legislatures, all of us including the academicians who have studied school accountability need seriously to confront the assumptions that now constitute the conventional wisdom.

Here are merely some of the widespread prejudices and biases that have been exacerbated as we have all become accustomed to two decades of ranking and rating schools and school districts and public school teachers by students’ standardized test scores:

Despite that research has demonstrated a strong correlation between community economics and a school’s or school district’s overall ranking based on standardized test scores, many people and many legislators now simply accept that public schools in poor communities are failing schools.

Across America’s metropolitan areas, the school grades and ratings being awarded by the states (as a requirement of the Every Student Succeeds Act) have accelerated racial and economic segregation as families rush to the highest scoring suburbs they can afford. Despite research showing that test scores are a poor measure of school quality, it will now be far more difficult to break down hardened prejudices about school district quality.

Without grasping the complexities of standardized testing, we have come to fear that test scores tell us something about the overall trajectory of American public education.  Many of us seem to believe that COVID caused some sort of long-term national educational decline even though prominent psychometricians like Gene Glass tell us that COVID did what one might expect from a pandemic—cause a serious blip in scores and not any kind of catastrophic decline.

No matter that researchers may have documented that students’ test scores reflect many factors and are not a valid reflection of the quality of teachers, our legislators tell us over and over again that teachers should simply be able to produce higher test scores.  The human part of teaching—the work of the teacher and the child—doesn’t seem to be part of the thinking anymore.

If you listen to state legislators proposing to mandate that school districts adopt the science of reading and purchase expensive curricula and materials developed by this reading theory’s proponents, you learn quickly that those in the statehouse want a method that claims to be scientifically teacher-proof and that doesn’t depend on the kind of training primary schoolteachers have received in the state colleges of education.

Never have schoolteachers been held in such low esteem.  The Wall Street Journal told us last Friday that, “Twenty-five states proposed bills this year to increase teacher pay. Nine succeeded.”  I will add that one of the nine states which did raise the minimum teacher salary was Ohio, which upped the starting teacher’s salary from $30,000 to $35,000 annually—hardly what we envision for a highly respected profession.

Beginning with No Child Left Behind two decades ago, America developed a new education accountability lexicon. We learned how to think about schools as measured by aggregate standardized test scores. Because we rarely have an opportunity to go inside the schools to observe the classes or study the curricular offerings, we have no idea whether those ratings and rankings mean anything at all, and we really don’t know what is happening in our community’s schools.  How long has it been since any of us had an opportunity to observe a primary school classroom where children are learning to read or a high school class discussion in which the teacher has genuinely stimulated the students to reflect critically on a work of literature?

The lexicon of test-and-punish school accountability has been with us all for such a long time that we use it without thinking. Maybe it’s time for a national re-read of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, David Berliner and Gene Glass’s 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, and Daniel Koretz’s The Testing Charade. Unless we all prioritize making explicit the deception perpetrated by the No Child Left Behind Act—its punitive operation and the ensuing linguistic and moral problems embedded in the educational lexicon it has created—there will not be the political will to force politicians to enact the kind of reforms being suggested by academic experts.


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...