Grade-Span Accountability Is A Bad Idea: Just Ask CAP and the AFT

By and 01/16/2015

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The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) have released a joint set of principles for ESEA reauthorization. They call for preserving statewide annual testing requirements for students, but they would base school-level accountability only on tests taken once per grade span—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Like the Education Trust, we think this is a bad idea. Grade-span accountability solves none of the problems of our current system while making other problems worse. Namely:

1. It doesn’t address concerns about over-testing. Students could be taking the same number of tests as they have in the past, particularly if districts don’t reduce the number of duplicative and unnecessary local tests. CAP has rightly cited these local tests as the root of the problem, but this proposal would not reduce the number of federally mandated tests.

2. Rather than decreasing the stakes on standardized tests, the AFT/CAP proposal would amplify them. Under their plan, a 5th grader would no longer be taking tests that reflect just on the 5th grade. His or her results would be the basis on which their entire school was judged. How, exactly, does this help “de-link [academic standards] from high-stakes tests”, as AFT President Randi Weingarten suggested a year ago?

3. It makes it even harder to focus on specific subgroups. NCLB held schools accountable for every subgroup that had a sufficient number of students (called the minimum “n-size”). But under the CAP/ AFT proposal, a school’s 5th grade African-American, ELL, or SWD groups could be too small to meet the minimum n-size and the whole school’s disadvantaged students could go uncounted. This may sound wonky and technical, but it becomes a pretty huge issue even at relatively small n-sizes (such as 10 or 20 students). Arne Duncan has estimated that hundreds of thousands of students were invisible to state accountability systems because of n-size issues. CAP has praised states in the past for lowering their n-sizes, but their plan to have fewer students “count” toward a school’s accountability rating would mean less attention on important subgroups of students.

4. We already have anecdotes about teachers who prefer to avoid tested grades and subjects. They may prefer teaching in 2nd grade, where there are no required standardized tests, than 3rd grade, where there are. But it’s tough to avoid the current tests altogether because they’re given in 3rd through 8th grade. Grade-span testing would make it even tougher to attract teachers into those few areas with much higher stakes. Who wants to be a 5th grade teacher when they might responsible for their entire school? In most places, they won’t even earn any extra money for all the added pressure! Moreover, this is exactly the kind of policy the AFT previously opposed for teacher evaluations. A year ago, Weingarten wrote: “In Florida, the system went completely haywire, giving teachers value-added scores for students they had never taught.” If it’s not okay for educator accountability, why is it okay for school accountability?

5. Standardized tests are often criticized for merely reflecting student demographics. While states and districts have been slow to implement accountability systems that incorporate student growth, with annual statewide testing, we at least had a hope of shifting attention to how much progress students make over time. CAP and the AFT once shared this hope. Yes, not all that long ago AFT advocated for an ESEA that “judges school effectiveness—the only valid and fair basis for accountability—by measuring the progress that schools achieve with the same students over time.” With longer gaps between tests that count for accountability purposes, we’re more likely to lean even heavier on raw test scores, measures that are highly correlated with student demographics.

6. Under this plan, students and families would still get a sense of how much progress they’re making. That’s important, but it’s odd to then turn around and suggest that states and school districts should ignore this same information for determining school progress. As CAP’s 2011 NCLB recommendations suggest, “Measuring and reporting student data is not sufficient to improve our nation’s schools. Congress should take several steps to ensure schools act on that data to boost student outcomes.” We assume they did not mean several steps backwards.

7. AFT and CAP pitch their proposal as targeting interventions to schools with large achievement gaps. That’s true, it would identify schools with gaps. But, ironically, it would give no credit to schools that are actually closing those achievement gaps. CAP used to support annual gap-closing goals. But now, schools with large concentrations of economically disadvantaged and minority students, English Language Learners, or students with disabilities would all be penalized unfairly, worse than they are under NCLB.

Ultimately, this plan would move us closer to how other countries do testing: fewer tests with much higher stakes. Rather than having regular check-ups on student progress, with relatively low stakes on those results, we’d have much higher stakes attached to a smaller number of test scores. Fortunately, AFT and CAP have already told us why this is a bad idea.

—Chad Aldeman and Anne Hyslop

This first appeared on Ahead of the Heard.

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