Thursday Reading List: School Accountability and Test Score Wonkery

This week, all eyes have been on the United States Senate, where confirmation hearings, partisan rancor, and grandstanding have attracted national attention. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives:

The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to overturn regulations crafted by the Obama administration for accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as those for teacher-preparation programs. If the ESSA resolution overturning the accountability rules is successful, it could have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. Department of Education, state officials, and local district leaders. These rules address school ratings, the timeline for identifying and intervening in struggling schools, indicators of school quality that go beyond test scores, and other issues. A Senate resolution to overturn the ESSA accountability rules is also expected in the near future.

That's from Andrew Ujifusa at Education Week. There's so much wonkery here, but the basic gist is that, during the Bush and Obama administrations, the federal government created rules that dictated how states rank their schools. At the risk of oversimplifying, one of the most important components of these requirements was that states had to look at subgroups of students within schools, like Black students, or students who speak English as a second language.

For example, let's say you have a high school in Princeton, New Jersey, where over 60% of the students are White, and less than 10% are Black. All of the Black students in the school could be getting systematically underserved, but even modest performance from the rest of the children in the school could hide that when data is averaged across the school. Before the early 2000s, many states and districts either avoided looking at, or willfully ignored, the performance of racial and ethnic subgroups ... particularly in places where the performance of a large group of White students could mathematically mask the underperformance of its non-White children. A lot of people hate testing, but there are substantial social justice and equity concerns that require some form of standardized assessment.

Sarah Darville at Chalkbeat watched Betsy DeVos's first speech as secretary of education, which she delivered to the staff of the department she now leads:

She told staffers that she valued their experience and ideas. She said students with disabilities and their families deserve the department’s full support, and that diversity and inclusion were important values. And she used language about “bending the arc” and “breaking the cycle” that echoed those who have tied education closely to social-justice work. DeVos also poked fun at the answer she gave about guns in schools during her confirmation hearing that inspired many a grizzly-bear meme. “For me personally, this confirmation process, and the drama it engendered, has been a bit of a bear,” DeVos said, to some laughter.

It will be interesting to see how DeVos's actions live up to her rhetoric. The Congressional moves described above do not bode well.

In other news, Meredith Kolodner of The Hechinger Report examined New York City's "Renewal schools," a systemic approach to addressing chronically underperforming schools. She zoomed in on P.S. 67 in Brooklyn:

Last year, 23 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state reading test, up from 0 percent in 2014. School staff members, in part, credit the improved academics and optimism to the targeted extra resources that come with being a Renewal school, a sort of supercharged version of a “community school” ... Where the model works, it offers hope for other struggling schools in poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods, not just in New York, but nationally ... But not all the Renewal schools have made the same progress as P.S. 67. By the program’s own measurements, a number of schools have not succeeded. More than one-third of the schools haven’t met even half of their own goals for attendance, academic progress and other improvements. Among its 31 high schools, graduation rates increased in 2i and decreased in eight last year over 2015 (two stayed the same).

Let that first sentence sink in. NONE of the children at the school were reading at grade level in the prior year. The next time someone tells you that things "aren't so bad" in American schools, ask that person whether she is okay with having schools in the country's largest, richest city where literally none of the children can read. The whole article is worth reading, because it captures the extent to which school improvement requires both serious changes to instruction and leadership, and support for children's non-academic needs. Both are important; neither is sufficient alone. Have a great day!