Idaho's High-Stakes Testing Gamble
January 1, 1970Note to readers: Although I have been following for some years educational policymaking in and around Boise, Idaho, where I have lived since 1996, it's likely that more people in New York, Massachusetts and other states know about my work than in my own backyard.
I have been fortunate to travel across the country talking to teachers, parents, school administrators and others confronting these issues. Oddly, the ordinary Idahoans I've talked to have seemed disengaged from the testing and accountability crusade sweeping the nation over the past several years. The potential consequences of new state and federal testing mandates, including the federal No Child Left Behind law, have yet to hit home, I suppose.
But that is about to change -- with a vengeance -- if the State Board of Education approves a new plan to add Idaho to the growing list of states that have adopted high school "exit" tests as the main gatekeeper to a high school diploma in this state.
The following piece is aimed at readers in Idaho, but I think the state's experience is instructive to those in other states as well, an object lesson in the old adage, "If it ain't broke, then fix it anyway."
Idaho's High-Stakes Testing Gamble
Idahoans take pride in their independence from intrusive government bureaucrats. But when it comes to schools, at least, this is myth. Indeed, Idaho’s policymakers are hell-bent on duplicating the same failed government experiment with high-stakes school testing now plaguing state after state.
The hand-wringing over Idaho’s schools is evident, for instance, when the annual survey from the national education newspaper, Education Week, hands the state -- yet again -- poor grades for school accountability (a D+) and teacher quality (an F). Why so? Largely because Idaho has been a laggard in hopping on the high-stakes testing bandwagon rumbling across America in recent years.
It would be brave if Idaho’s politicians would tell citizens that policymakers here were simply going their own way and taking time to do school improvement right, having learned from the overzealous experiments with high-stakes testing elsewhere. Sadly, however, policymakers are leading the state down the same old road of the school accountability crusade’s false promises. Under pressure from corporate Idaho, politicians are trying to sell taxpayers a technocrat’s brew: that more state-issued school standards, more state-mandated standardized tests, as well as harsher sanctions for schools and school children who don’t measure up, will magically transform Idaho into that statistically impossible, Lake Wobegon-esque place where all the kids score above average.
Following the recipe of school reform being enacted from Washington to North Carolina, the Idaho Legislature approved new high-school standards in such subjects as English, math and science. All eyes are on the next few years, perhaps as soon as 2005, when Idaho is likely to join scores of other states in mandating that high schoolers pass a state “exit” examination in order to graduate.
Just ask Dawn Justice of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, who recently told the Idaho Statesman, “The need for assessment and accountability is kind of a no-brainer.”
A no brainer? A no brainer for whom exactly? For politicians, to whom “standards” and “accountability” are like mom-and-apple-pie homilies that make for good political stump speeches? For students of affluent and well-educated families for whom passing dumbed-down state standardized is often a trivial exercise? For students from poor and economically disadvantaged families who may well be getting A’s and B’s throughout 12 years of school but are denied a diploma on the basis of one standardized test?
NICE SOUNDBITES, BUT DOES IT WORK?
To be sure, tales of higher academic standards being enacted across the land and the frequent tales of sharp gains in test scores at many schools, reported breathlessly in the media, sustain the popular belief in the reform crusade's holy trinity--standards, accountability and testing.
But a striking body of research evidence behind the headlines of improved test scores -- evidence that Idaho policymakers would do well to consider -- unveils a scantily clad emperor indeed. While the rhetoric of the accountability movement is highly effective, remarkably little good evidence exists that there's much educational substance behind it.
In fact, when you add up the real costs of the uniquely American model of school accountability and compare them to the minimal or non-existent benefits, you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that the national swoon over high-stakes testing has been an unmitigated failure. And, on its present course, the experiment will fail in Idaho, too, unless this state’s policymakers learn from the mistakes of other states by taking a cold, hard look at the evidence.
Of course, the key assumption upon which the entire accountability movement in Idaho and other states rests seems straighforward enough: Crusaders for test-driven reform believe that the more you test schools and school children; the more you rank, rate, sort , punish and reward them on the basis of test results; the greater will be the gains in academic achievement.
In fact, it’s a myth. In researching and writing about the accountability movement over the past several years I’ve yet to encounter any significant evidence to support the claim. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that the big accountability and testing bureaucracies being enacted across the country may be actually harmful to childrens’ learning.
Consider, for example, the Education Week survey that gave Idaho poor grades for being tardy in enacting a full-fledged standards and accountability program -- grades that Idaho politicians are eager to rectify. What that survey and others like it would prefer to ignore are the unsettling cases of states such as Iowa and Montana, both of which have largely thumbed their noses at the high-stakes testing crusade, preferring to leave assessment of school children to individual communities and schools.
And yet, Iowa and Montana schools have somehow managed to survive just fine, thrive even, and we know this from results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which most people know as the “nation’s report card.” As a periodic, voluntary assessment of fourth, eighth and 12th graders in reading, math and science, the NAEP is considered by education experts to be the best indicator available to keep track of academic achievement of states over time. The NAEP is reliable because it is resolutely not a high-stakes test by intent and design, and thus teachers don’t teach to it. (Unfortunately, Idaho has been tardy in its own voluntary participation in the NAEP, so there aren’t achievement figures with which to compare with other states.)
Consider Iowa. Without state mandated testing, that state has ranked consistently among the top ten states in terms of reading, math and science achievement, according to the most recent NAEP results. Iowa ranked sixth in the percentage of fourth graders who are proficient readers; fifth in the percentage of eighth graders proficient at math; and seventh in eighth grade science proficiency.
Closer to home is Montana, which until recently has required no standardized testing at all. Of course, that is changing as Montana and other states attempt to comply with the federal "No Child Left Behind Act." Nevertheless, Montana's supposed deficiency in its accountability program didn't stop the state from ranking fourth nationally in the percentage of fourth graders who read at a proficient level, third in eighth grade reading and math proficiency, and first among the states in eighth grade science proficiency.
Even while racking up achievement numbers like these, Iowa and Montana remain the bad boys of the high-stakes testing crusade, both flunking Education Week’s standards and accountability scale. Then there are pet states such as South Carolina, which earned a grade of B-plus from Education Week for its efforts to hold students and schools accountable. As for performance on the NAEP, however, South Carolina is certainly no Iowa, falling considerably below national averages in reading, math and science for fourth graders and eighth graders.
It helps that Iowa and Montana schools, without Legislative mandates to boost test scores, or else, have been free to focus on learning instead of testing. In their obsessive drive to ratchet up test scores at almost any cost, policymakers in other states been curiously oblivious to the collateral damage to the learning environment. Schools and teachers, under intense pressure brought to bear by the media and local officials to measure their educational worth exclusively with standardized tests, have discovered the educationally dubious practice of teaching to such tests. Subjects, ideas and modes of inquiry not on a particular test and easily formatted as a standardized test question, are simply ignored, pushed out of test-driven schools.
Idaho policymakers may believe that teaching to tests will simply force educators to “focus on things,” as departing House Education Committee Chairman Fred Tilman said at one hearing on proposed standards for kindergarten through eighth grade. But Tilman appears not to fully appreciate that a cookbook approach to education, which virtually always follows a state’s enactment of new high-stakes testing schemes, will have precisely the opposite result of improving educational quality that he and others say they want.
According to mountains of research evidence from many dispassionate studies of the accountability movement’s experiment on our schools, high-stakes tests such as high-school graduation exams inevitably lead to mindless teaching to tests, which in turn leads to a sort of pseudo-learning. Indeed, the very meaning of education is being transformed by high-stakes testing. In what passes for school reform nowadays, children are getting their education by worksheets, mindless repetitive drills matching test items, practice tests that mimic the high-stakes tests, and similar rote practices that consume inordinate amounts of classroom time.
Most educators I’ve talked to say such practices are anathema to learning for understanding and sustained achievement. Time spent taking tests and prepping for tests is time that could have been spent actually learning something or applying skills and knowledge to some meaningful activity in a realistic context. Schools have discovered that they can “buy” vast improvements in “achievement” in mysteriously brief periods of time, by going for broke on test-prep and coaching -- without a whit of lasting achievement gains.
Were Idaho policymakers to purposely design a system to dumb down schools rather than raise academic performance, they would do well to impose a regulatory, standardized model of education that includes all the bells and whistles that receive high rankings on the perennial annual surveys of the neo-conservative think-tanks and foundations, including those conducted by the Fordham Foundation, which, like the Education Week survey, has also flunked Idaho schools in its own survey.
The recipe for the dumb-down includes school “report cards” that do little more than tar and feather schools on the basis of test score rankings; tests to determine promotion from one grade to the next and graduation from high school; bribing teachers with bonuses for higher test scores and linking performance evaluations to test results; and yanking a school’s state accreditation on the basis of performance on standardized tests.
THE TEXAS 'MIRACLE'
Nowhere has the accountability crusade been more successful than in the state of Texas, which is often held up as the model for states like Idaho to emulate, particularly as former Texas governor George W. Bush has ascended to the U.S. presidency.
And no state provides Idaho’s policymakers with a better illustration of the nation’s failed experiment with test-driven school reform. Beginning in the early 1990s, Texas students have been required to pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) “exit” test to merit a high-school diploma. Just one test overrides all other aspects of student performance during his or her twelve years in the Texas school system. On the campaign stump, Bush touted what came to be called the Texas Miracle, in which TAAS scores were surging for all racial and economic groups and achievement gaps between whites and minorities were shrinking, to boot.
But more dispassionate analyses of the Texas Miracle have proven it to be a big, Texas-style myth. Consider the record of student achievement. According to the the Texas test, academic achievement has gone through the roof during the past decade for all ethnic groups. And yet, on the independent measure of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Texas achievement gains were overwhelmingly modest and simply matched those for the nation as a whole.
Then there’s Bush’s claim that the Texas reforms have led to vastly improved performance of poor and minority children relative to middle-class white kids. Advocates of Texas-style reform point to plummeting test-score gaps on the TAAS between whites and minorities. But, again, the NAEP tells a far different story. For instance, while TAAS results showed the black-white gap in fourth grade reading scores falling an impressive 12 points between 1994 and 1998, NAEP shows the Texas reading performance gap between black and white kids actually increased 7 points.
What’s more, the achievement gaps between white and minority children in Texas grew worse during the past decade than for the nation as a whole, according to the national report card. On fourth grade math proficiency, for example, the white-black score difference expanded 13 points in Texas compared to just 3 percentage points for the nation between 1992 and 1996.
As a result, Black and Hispanic students have become cannon fodder for Texas’s crimes and punishments approach to school reform, and tens of thousands have simply disappeared from Texas schools. In the 20 or so years before the state adopted the TAAS “exit” test in the early 1990s, six in ten black and Hispanic students made it from ninth grade to high school graduation, according to data compiled by Walter Haney, a professor of education at Boston College. That figure has dwindled to 50 percent since the introduction of the graduation test, meaning that as many as 200,000 minority students have left school between the ninth and twelfth grade, very likely due in part to the TAAS roadblock. By contrast, the proportion of white ninth graders (whose prospects for passing the TAAS are far greater) staying in school through graduation has remained steady at 70 percent. Further, Haney’s data shows that the Texas accountability machine, claiming to “leave no child behind,” has in fact resulted in some 700,000 Texas school children disappearing from the schools between sixth grade in 1992 and the time they would have graduated in 1999.
What, then, accounts for the miraculous gains on the Texas test but not the NAEP? Don’t look to politicians for the answer, but rather to the teachers, principals and others in Texas who are responsible for cranking up TAAS scores in order not to be branded a “failing school” and targeted for all manner of state sanctions.
In fact, Texas classrooms in recent years have been transformed into a massive test preparation and coaching enterprise, driven by test scores and not much else. According to teachers and parents I’ve talked to, virtually nothing will be taught in a Texas classroom unless it will show up on some TAAS exam and easily formatted as a TAAS test item. A mini-industry has sprouted in Texas consisting of firms selling TAAS preparation materials to teachers and students. Texas’s modest NAEP gains, which haven’t been nearly as impressive as the state test, underscores NAEP’s value as an independent audit of a state’s general progress, and a test that isn’t routinely taught to.
Were Idaho policymakers really interested in improving academic achievement of the state’s school children, they might take pause at the results of many studies that have quantified the extent to which “model” states like Texas classrooms have been transformed into test-prep enterprises.
In one study, for instance, some 85 percent of Texas teachers reported that prepping and coaching specifically to TAAS content and format occurred throughout the school year, with intense coaching up to two months before the test. The training begins early, as Texas kindergarteners are drilled on how to “bubble-in” answers to multiple-choice questions -- three years prior to their first TAAS exam in third grade. Even more scary, fully 85 percent of the teachers said that no academic growth took place as a consequence of the TAAS system and that the only new learning consisted of being drilled on TAAS test-taking skills.
POLITICS AND REFORM
Alas, the national obsession with high-stakes testing has never been about improving schools but rather in proving how badly the school were doing. Recall the bone-chilling words from the “A Nation at Risk” report in 1983, the incendiary document which warned that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in our schools would doom the American way of life unless states enacted higher standards and scads more standardized testing to measure academic progress. Ignited by the “Risk” call-to-arms, the accountability movement gained political force throughout the decade, as state legislatures continued to enact new standards and high-stakes testing schemes with virtually no debate on whether such schemes really work.
From the beginning, the accountability crusade was built on a house of cards. Academic achievement at the time of “Risk” wasn’t in a crisis prior to that alarmist report, nor has it been since. And, we all know what transpired with the nation’s economy subsequent to Risk’s dire warnings that Americans would become slaves to the German and Japanese economic machines. Producing record low unemployment, the American economy became a highly efficient and powerful jobs machine over the decade -- all in spite of its supposedly failing education system.
Curiously, schools got the blame when the American economy was suffering from a deep recession in the early1980s, but the same critics, crusaders and reformers have given virtually no credit to the nation’s education system during the flush economic times of late.
These are inconvenient truths for the Chicken Littles of the accountability crusade, intent on selling the idea to the American public that schools remain in a perpetual state of failure, which will lead to economic ruination.
And so, we get President Bush, who is certain to join both his dad and the recently departed Bill Clinton as yet another wanna-be education president, calling for more standards, annual testing of school children, and raising the stakes to unprecedented levels by proposing to link federal education aid to schools to their performance on standardized tests. Indeed, as a presidential candidate, Bush was busy writing the sequel to “Risk,” asserting that the nation was suffering still from an “educational recession” that threatened to dethrone the United States from the top of the world’s economic perch. I’m not holding my breath.
At some point, even the least cynical among us would ask why school bashing remains a national pastime of politicians and corporate leaders, even as the case for failing schools remains weak.
Surely, bashing schools and teachers is one means for corporate leaders and state legislatures to sustain political control over schools and the professional educators who are trained to make them work. And, if one’s ultimate agenda is to privatize public education by spinning off public assets of “failing schools” to private managers and investors, then the worse the schools look in the test-score horse race, the more likely that would-be educational entrepreneurs will get rich off taxpayers.
But there is one more costly and pernicious piece of damage that framers of the accountability movement have virtually ignored in the years following the “Risk” report. Obsessed with test results and holding schools themselves accountable for those results, the entire accountability enterprise has studiously avoided confronting the real problems of schools.
The accountability crusade has sustained, and been sustained by, a big but comfortable lie: that schools themselves are a prime agent for social and economic change in the larger society, rather than a reflection and reinforcer of existing social and economic divisions. In practice, this illusion has implied that “fixing” schools -- via gains in standardized test scores -- will also fix unemployment, crime and poverty as well as racial and economic inequality. The entire accountability project in the United States over the past two decades has been based on a refusal to even acknowledge the far more troublesome prospect that the causal relationships between schools and the larger society might in fact work largely in exactly the opposite direction to that wishful thinking.
IDAHO'S REAL EDUCATION CRISIS
To be sure, Idaho suffers from its own very real educational problems. Only four states, including Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Nevada, have higher student drop-out rates between ninth and12th grade than does Idaho. Not even half of Idaho’s high school graduates go on to enroll in a two-year or four-year college. Nationally, 65 percent of students do so, and only Nevada and Alaska rank lower than Idaho in rates of college enrollment.
Moreover, insufficient numbers of Idaho students are taking challenging courses in math and science. Just 16 percent of Idaho high schoolers in 1998 were enrolled in upper-level science courses, considerably below the national average. By comparison, more than a third of Iowa’s high school students were taking challenging science courses. Why is that important? The single most powerful predictor of one’s prospects for completing a college degree is the rigor of one’s course of study in high school, a recent U.S. Department of Education study showed. A student’s completing challenging courses in high school is a better predictor of college success than high school grades and a considerably better indicator than any standardized test score, including the SAT or the ACT college admissions exams.
Worse still is Idaho’s remarkably dismal record at alleviating child poverty. Even as the state economy boomed and state budget surpluses soared, even as child poverty rates across the nation were in decline during the past decade, child poverty in Idaho continued to climb. Fully one out of five Idaho children are poor, compared to 16 percent nationally. Anybody who has seriously studied the powerful effects of child poverty on academic achievement knows that this may be Idaho’s most pressing educational crisis, and it won’t be solved with more high-stakes exams. Of course, many Idaho politicians and business leaders will contend that high-school graduates lack the knowledge and skills needed to make Idaho’s economy work. Notwithstanding that such complaints are merely new refrains of the same old “A Nation at Risk” tune, let’s concede the point.
The big question, however, remains whether a uniform system of statewide standards and still more mandatory testing to enforce those standards, will lead to improved performance on those things that really matter for the state’s economy. These include students taking challenging courses, high rates of high school and college completion, and yes, efforts to alleviate child poverty.
Alternatives to high-stakes testing do exist, and a rare minority of educators across the country have been given the latitude to avoid its pitfalls. Taking to heart the counsel of educational testing experts, some schools, even in a heavily tested state like North Carolina, have vowed not to let the state's high-stakes exams overwhelm all other aspects of a child's performance in school. One North Carolina district, for example, requires teachers to keep detailed portfolios of a student's work over time, in order to provide a backstop to the state tests. Even if a child's test scores are poor, educators have a moral imperative to ensure that no child is retained or penalized if her actual performance in school proves otherwise.
In their zeal to improve schools with bureaucratic fixes rather than sound educational efforts, in their attempts to sort, rank and flunk school children on the basis of test scores, Idaho’s policymakers, on their present course, will actually undermine their laudable goal to improve schools. There’s still time for Idaho to be as independent from this national insanity as it wants to be and do school improvement well.
(c) 2003 Peter Sacks