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Numbers Game Leaves Many Behind
Ohanian quote: You don't have to agree with the writer's allegiance to testing to appeciate some of the points she makes.

Recently, several major school districts have been outted for their seriously funky reporting of dropouts. The Houston district's black eye is particularly famous because Rod Paige -- the district's ex-superintendent, now the United States secretary of education -- modeled the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) school reform law on the Houston "miracle," which supposedly improved test scores simultaneously with reducing drop-outs.

Houston reported a 1.5-percent dropout rate in 2001, but a recent state audit revealed such glaring errors that the district was put on a watch list.

Even more recently comes along a report, by Jay Greene and Greg Forster, based on a new study sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- "Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States." (Its full text is on the Manhattan Institute site.) By comparing the 9th grade class to the actual diplomas handed out four years later, their data indicates that Houston lost close to half of its original class of 2001. Not to pick on Texas or anything, but the state reported its overall dropout rate as 1 percent, while Greene and Forester pegs its graduation rate at 67 percent, which puts the dropouts closer to 33 percent.

Recently, the New York press has also accused that city's schools of practicing "Enron accounting" with its dropouts. And Boston College's Anne Wheelock notes that while Massachusetts claims a 93 percent graduation rate, if you use the 9th grade as the baseline, once again the rate drops rather impressively to 71 percent.

The truth is that every district is probably doing whatever it can get away with. As Greene and Forester put it: "Even the National Center for Education Statistics, a generally reliable source of education data run by the U.S. Department of Education, claims that the national graduation rate is 86.5 percent. . . . We estimate it at only 70 percent." Judging by the hoards of native-born adults showing up for literacy help, the sadder number makes better sense.

The "Enron" numbers are the combined result of much sloppiness as well as deliberate and brazen miscoding, and the white lie of counting students who get a GED as non-drop-outs. Schools have less than no incentive to invest the significant leg work it would take to get an accurate count. But more important, like any corporation or bureaucracy, when schools can't actually be good, they can at least jimmy numbers to look good. The danger of our current passion for accountability -- focused entirely on test scores -- is that it becomes a numbers game.

If NCLB were really interested in all kids, as it professes, the 1,200 pages of law might have devoted a wee corner somewhere to requiring (and paying for) student identifiers that would make feasible the huge job of tracking mobile and disaffected students. Without an identifier -- a number or code like a Social Security number -- no one has any idea what's up with the kid who has ceased to show up. Mark him "transferred to another school" and only a time-consuming audit can prove otherwise.

Sometime after 9/11, I remember hearing a military guy say that data is only data until someone comes along, thinks it over and risks being wrong by interpreting it into intelligence. I could be wrong but it seems to me that NCLB numbers game is actually beginning to tell us something by dividing our children into four distinct groups.

The first group are those kids who always did pass their state exams, take the required courses to graduate and are inherently equipped and motivated to win at the school game and/or have intact, supportive families at home. These kids' education would be fun to enhance if only we didn't have more pressing problems.

The new and very important second group are those ex-shirkers who apparently needed only improved curriculum or a big kick in the butt to get themselves to meet the standard. In Massachusetts, for example, when diplomas were finally tied to passing the state tests, the pass rate increased a whopping 20 percent. High-stakes testing is an obvious motivator, but not the only one. This year, the nation as a whole saw gains on the NAEPs and on the SATs, but some states with strong gains had high-stakes tests and others did not. States with flat or slightly declining scores had high-stakes testing, others did not. Clearly, some states figured out how to motivate or improve the performance of more, but not all of their students.

The third group are the kids who take the test and fail. Once again, here's where the law begs to be played as a numbers game. States are lowering their cut-off scores to keep their schools off the watch-lists and to award diplomas to all students who stick out the four years of high school.

In the end, we'll have everyone proficient on paper, but longer lines at the adult literacy center. Does anyone know these kids well enough to hazard a guess as to why -- kid by kid -- they are failing? The law talks at length about sanctions -- punishments to the schools -- but not about getting to the bottom of each failure. Some failures are indeed due to poor schooling, others because of the kids and their circumstances. By never knowing the real cause for failure, fingers point every which way. NCLB points to the school and leaves it at that.

The fourth group is the now famously outted 30 percent of our youth who drift off before they graduate. This group has the potential to grow as the federal accountability screws tighten, thus pressuring the schools and districts, further irritating the already irritated teachers. The law seems designed to make inhospitable schools more inhospitable. The feds can yell at the schools all they want, but that won't bring these kids back. We're institutionalizing our own failure to bring them into the fold.

So: we know that strong-arm techniques will work to some degree in some schools with certain kids. Genuinely enhanced intellectual discipline and focus are clearly good for both schools and students. But more humorless structure and pressure in an already impersonal environment will be absolutely counterproductive, especially with the group of kids who don't have enough attention to pay to their lessons or whose lessons don't seem worth their attention.

Let's not kid ourselves: this 30 percent or one-third of the student population has never been in the fold. The schools were specifically designed to slough them into a manufacturing economy. We don't know very much about hanging on to them, never mind giving them a quality education. Only experimentation and vigorous cutting away of the adult-oriented regulation, legislation, contractual restrictions and policies will give the schools the wherewithal to create communities of learners that suit the 30 percent. Well, all that and much more honest work on stemming the social chaos in which shameful numbers of children struggle to grow up.

I believe in tests to tell us how we're doing. I believe in accountability. But this numbers game we've let ourselves in for is a deeply cynical pretense of caring for those most assuredly left behind.

— Julia Steiny
Numbers game leaves many behind
Providence Journal


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