Texas Hit the Accountability Plateau, Then the Rest of the Country Followed



By and 12/15/2011

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The Accountability Plateau,” by Mark Schneider,  just published by Education Next and the Fordham Institute, makes a big point: that “consequential accountability,” à la No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes state testing systems that preceded it, corresponded with a significant one-time boost in student achievement, particularly in primary and middle school math. Like the meteor that led to the decline of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, results-based accountability appears to have shocked the education system. But its effect seems to be fading now, as earlier gains are maintained but not built upon. If we are to get another big jump in academic achievement, we’re going to need another shock to the system—another meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system.

So argues Mark Schneider, a scholar, analyst, and friend whom we once affectionately (and appropriately) named “Statstud.” Schneider, a political scientist, served as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005 to 2008, and is now affiliated with the American Institutes for Research and the American Enterprise Institute. In his new analysis, he digs into twenty years of trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the “Nation’s Report Card.”

We originally asked Schneider to investigate the achievement record of the great state of Texas. At the time—it feels like just yesterday—Lone Star Governor Rick Perry was riding high in the polls, making an issue of education, and taking flak from Secretary Arne Duncan for running an inadequate school system. We wondered: Was Duncan right to feel “very, very badly” for the children of Texas? Had the state’s schools—once darlings of the standards movement and prototypes for NCLB—really slipped into decline since Perry took office? What do the NAEP data really show?

Schneider agreed to take on the project but quickly concluded that there’s a larger and more interesting story to tell than simply the saga of Texas. It was true, he noted, that Texas’s achievement slowed during the Perry years, particularly as compared to the rest of the country. But rather than pin that development on the governor, Schneider saw a more likely explanation: As an early adopter of standards, testing, and accountability, Texas got a head start on big achievement gains, most of which it realized in the 1990s when George W. Bush was governor—and also a head start on flat-lining thereafter, during Rick Perry’s tenure.

Indeed, the Lone Star State made Texas-sized gains from the early- to mid-1990s, as its accountability system got traction. But as other states followed suit, they too hit the achievement fast-track, leading to sizable national gains from 1998 to 2003. Since then, however, Texas’s progress has cooled, and the same is now happening to the country as a whole. It’s not that Perry was a worse “education governor” than Bush (or, for that matter, Ann Richards) before him, but that he presided over an accountability strategy that was running out of steam.

It’s an intriguing argument, and one that deserves serious consideration, even more so as the U.S. marks the tenth anniversary of the enactment of NCLB and tries to figure out what the next version of that law should entail. If school-level accountability, as currently practiced, is no longer an effective lever for raising student achievement, then what is? If we need another “meteor” to disrupt the system, where should we look? Mark suggests that the Common Core and rigorous teacher evaluations have potential. We also see promise in the digital-learning revolution. But other shocks to the system might work even better. What are they?

-Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Petrilli




Comment on this article
  • Parry says:

    I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment.

    The underlying assumption seems to be that, as a result of “consequential accountability”, both in Texas and across the country in the wake of NCLB, public schools were shocked into new behaviors and practices that resulted in students learning more math. According to NAEP scores, the improved learning was most pronounced in 4th grade, less so in 8th grade, and essentially inconsequential at the high school level.

    What if the gains on NAEP scores were not, however, a result of improved student learning? What if they were the result of something else? Please correct this possibly implausible scenario, but what if the improvements on the NAEP were the result of a heightened focus on test-taking?

    Accountability systems involve lots of standardized tests. Could 4th graders across the nation have become more adept at taking standardized tests as a result of taking lots of standardized tests, and as a result of explicit instruction in how to pass standardized tests (e.g., learning how to eliminate obviously wrong answers through repeated practice)? Eighth graders would likely already have had some proficiency in standardized testing prior to big-time accountability policies, and therefore have had less room for improvement, whereas high schoolers would likely have had enough experience with standardized tests that they would have no more room for growth in their test-taking skills. In other words, the NAEP is a standardized test: could the gains on the NAEP over the last 10-15 years reflect the improved test-taking skills of our nation’s students in the wake of test-based accountability policies, as opposed to improved math knowledge?

    What other evidence is there, outside of standardized tests, that students today know more math than the students of 20 years ago?

    Just wondering.

    Parry

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