It’s hard to learn your lesson – especially if doing so costs you money.
Case in point: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the largest lobbying organization in the country, issued a new report examining the impact of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the George W. Bush era law making standardized testing the centerpiece of K-12 education.
So an organization representing oil companies, pharmaceutical giants and automakers just opined on public school policy as if it were made up of experts.
And guess what?
Business folks don’t know what the heck they’re talking about in education.
Because after sorting through 20 years of NCLB controversy, political shenanigans and factual mistakes, the supply side cabal thinks the law is just fine.
It’s kind of like a judge watching a driver plow his car into a brick wall repeatedly and then instead of taking away his license, awarding him a safe driver certificate.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out why.
Think about it. These are supply side cultists. If our education policy is working just fine as is, then there’s no need to raise taxes on all the business interests the free market fan club represents to fix the problem.
And, moreover, we can keep funneling the education dollars we do spend to corporations (many of whom are represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation) who profit off the law by making tests, grading tests and selling test prep material.
The only thing shocking here (maybe) is the way the media publishes the Foundation’s results as if they were truths handed down from on high.
What’s the matter, journalists? You’ve never heard of a conflict of interest?
An organization like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation with proven ties to the Koch Brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is somehow the epitome of unbiased advocacy!?
The organization’s own report describes the Foundation as “tireless advocates for high-quality academic standards, assessments, and accountability as tools for educational equity.”
By its own admission, then, this is the testing industry evaluating itself. And – surprise – it gave itself a high score!
The report was written by Dan Goldhaber and Michael DeArmond of the Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes for Research with a qualitative analysis by Brightbeam CEO Chris Stewart and his staff.
CALDER is a federally-funded nonprofit organization with several testing industry-funded and conservative think-tank members in management, on the advisory board, and working as independent researchers – in case, you thought anything they produced might be fair and balanced.
Brightbeam is a corporate education reform think tank financed by the usual billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg, Alice Walton, Jim Walton, Laurene Jobs Powell and Mark Zuckerberg. And Stewart is a long-time standardized testing and school privatization cheerleader – not exactly the kind of people who can afford to find much fault in NCLB because doing so would put them out of work.
The report highlights eight key findings – four positive and four negative.
First, the authors of the report pat each other on the back because NCLB collected so much yummy data that had been unavailable previously. In particular, the law extracted data from the nation’s schools based on race, socioeconomics and special needs. “No longer were school districts able to hide the performance of some students behind an average,” the report states.
It’s certainly true that NCLB collected a mountain of data. However, such information conceivably could have been gathered without making standardized testing the fulcrum around which schools turn. It could just as easily have been collected based entirely on classroom grades. It’s just that doing so might have been considered invasive and a violation of privacy. You might have had to explain why you wanted such data first – but why explain when you can just take?
Moreover, it’s strange to celebrate NCLB for disallowing hiding student performance behind an average when that’s exactly what it does. Everything is an average now! Average test scores, aggregate passing scores, whether your school made adequate yearly progress… it’s all averages! Oh to go back to the times when you could look at a single student’s academic record without having to compare it to anyone else!
Second, the authors claim student test scores increased because of NCLB especially among Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. However, this depends on how you massage the data.
Test scores have stayed relatively the same throughout the last 20 years with dips here and rises there. No matter the test, the overall trajectory has been pretty flat. You can focus here or focus there to create a picture that supports whatever narrative you want, but taken as a whole, there has not been any significant progress as shown by test scores.
But even if there had been, let’s not forget that no one has ever proven standardized test scores actually have anything to do with real academic progress. Just because you get a good score on a multiple choice test, it doesn’t mean you’ve actually learned to do anything but take a very limited and artificial test that is far removed from the circumstances where anyone actually uses the skills the test purports to be assessing.
Third, the report celebrates the production of “more reliable, comparable education data.” This is a suspect claim.
Are test scores more reliable than classroom grades? That has never been proven. In fact, when it comes to predicting future success in college or careers, there is plenty of evidence that classroom grades do a better job than test scores. After all, tests are based on work done over a relatively few number of days. Grades are based on an entire year’s worth of work.
However, it is true that test scores are more easily comparable because they come from the same assessments. Why this is so important is unclear. Learning is not the same as sports statistics. It is not a competition. Students learn when they’re ready to learn – not based on anyone’s schedule. What matters is if they learn at all.
Fourth, the authors admit “Reforms in teacher evaluation and school turnaround initiatives did not consistently improve student outcomes at scale, in part due to significant variation in quality of implementation.”
It is interesting that even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can’t spin NCLB into an unquestionable success. But it is almost a cliche among the standardized testing industry that any failures of the big tests are always excused as failures solely of “implementation.” If teachers and districts just tried harder to put the testing industry’s plans into effect, everything would be working perfectly. It’s these darn teachers and schools! Whine! Cry! Sob!
For the negative findings, the report concluded there were unknowns about the impact of NCLB that should be further studied.
First, they were unsure if schools serving minorities and the poor ended up getting more money to improve than they otherwise would have done. SPOILER ALERT: they did not.
The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed under Lyndon B. Johnson was focused on equity – the exact concern the authors of the report pretend to be all about. However, when the law was reauthorized as NCLB in 2002 (and reauthorized again in 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act) it focused instead on test scores as a gatekeeper to equity. Instead of looking at needs, you had to pass the tests to get the money to meet your needs. And if you had needs, that meant your district and teachers were failing so they had to lose funding to punish them, first. Somehow you were supposed to end up with more funding after all that nonsense.
Second, if schools did get more funding because of test scores, the authors of the report were unsure what schools did with it. SPOILER ALERT: It went to test prep and charter school expansion.
NCLB refocused education on test scores, so if students did badly on the assessments, they needed test prep material. And if the teachers and districts weren’t miraculously overcoming social, economic and special needs of students in impoverished areas, money was given to open competing charter schools.
Did this help? Just the opposite. Now you have two schools vying for an even smaller pot of funding but one of these schools (the charter) doesn’t have to follow the regulations the others school must. So anyone with no background in education can open a school, hire uncertified teachers, make decisions on how to spend tax dollars without an elected school board, etc. Not helpful.
Third, the authors of the report were unsure how many struggling schools became successful under NCLB. SPOILER ALERT: Not many.
You don’t help a malnourished person by starving him even further or making him compete for food. The same with school districts. In almost every case where a school miracle is proposed in which kids simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, the reality turns out to be a byproduct of creative accounting or selective data.
That was the entire foundation of NCLB – George W. Bush’s fairy tale about Texas schools during his time as Governor which miraculously improved when you tested the heck out of them. That never happened, and neither did it happen when his dream became national policy.
Take New Orleans, a district often held up by the testing and privatization industry as a success. This is the only all-charter school district in the country. After 2005 and Hurricane Katrina, a predominantly white Republican legislature forced the district’s public schools to become charters – outright experimenting on a majority African American city. The result? School enrollment declined from 65,000 before the hurricane to 48,000 a dozen years later. The most recent state scores rated 49% of the city’s charter schools as D or F, based on their academic performance. The New Orleans district scores are below the state average, and that’s saying something since Louisiana is one of the lowest performing states in the nation.
Not exactly an overwhelming success.
Fourth, the authors wondered if NCLB might have resulted in non-academic improvements – things like a reduction in chronic absences, school climate, etc. SPOILER ALERT: Nope.
A focus on standardized testing does not convince more kids to come to school. Few kids get excited about taking tests. They get excited about broad academic curriculum, arts and extra curricular activities – the kinds of things districts had to cut back on because of NCLB.
So there you have it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is proud of their little report about the impact of NCLB. They give themselves a gold star.
The reality though is much different than what you’ll find on this bit of propaganda.
Any reasonable examination of the last 20 years in education would show this policy is ripe for repeal. We need to forgo standardized testing entirely in our public schools – not double down on them for yet another decade of failure.
Not only should it not be required to determine which schools need what funds, it should be kicked out of our schools like foxes from the henhouse.
And charter schools should be abolished in all 45 states plus the District of Columbia that have been duped into passing laws allowing them.
We need to put the focus back on equity, back on student need.
Let’s get real. Poverty and wealth are the most important factors determining test scores. This shows up on every standardized test. In fact, that’s what the name means – STANDARDIZED test – these assessments are normed on a bell curve reflecting family income and education. Kids from families from higher socioeconomic brackets are at the top of the curve and poor kids are on the bottom.
And consider this: nearly half the students in the U.S. now qualify for free or reduced lunches – the federal measure of poverty. So if we really want to help kids achieve academically, we need to first reduce the impact of poverty on children and families by making sure that they have access to nutrition, medical care, and good housing. Ensure pregnant women get medical care so their children are born healthy.
That’s how you improve education. The federal government should fully fund the schooling of students with disabilities and at least triple the funding for low-income schools. Pay teachers the kinds of wages that will keep them on the job and stop the steady stream of educators out of the field. Teachers should be treated like professionals and never have to work at second or third jobs to make ends meet. Assessment should be a teacher’s job – they should write their own tests as we trusted them to do for generations. And we can use the billions in savings now wasted on standardized testing instead to reduce class sizes so children can get individualized help from their teacher.
In short, don’t give students corporate canned tests. Give them well-maintained schools with nurses, counselors, and libraries with flesh-and-blood librarians. These are just some of the ways we could actually make things better.
It’s been two decades already. People know high stakes testing has failed despite whatever public relations reports are issued by lobbyist organizations. It’s time we had the courage to admit NCLB was a mistake and acted to finally put things right.
It may hurt some businesses that rely on testing to make a buck. It may require big corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. But that is the only way to improve education.
We must put our money where our mouths are – or else be quiet.
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