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Fordham Be Damned, We Say 3 Cheers for Nebraska--and for the Commissioner Who Stands Tall

Shuck Corn, Not Standards

Gadfly caused a stir in Nebraska when it criticized the state for "doing just enough to keep its federal funds while skirting the spirit of the accountability provisions" of NCLB—and the U.S. Department of Education for playing along. In "Nebraska: Mo' money, less accountability," we took issue with the state's plan to allow its 517 districts to design their own systems of standards and assessments based on "a portfolio of teachers' classroom assessments, district tests that measure how well children are meeting locally developed learning standards, a state writing test, and at least one nationally standardized test included as a reality check." As we argued at the time, this approach is not only expensive and time-consuming, but, by focusing primarily on subjective measures of student achievement, it makes comparisons across districts (a critical component of NCLB) all but impossible. (See http://www.edexcellence.net/foundation/gadfly/issue.cfm?id=144#1771 for more.) Certainly it violates the spirit of NCLB's call for uniform statewide testing aligned with uniform statewide standards.

Taking forceful issue was Douglas Christenson, Nebraska's commissioner of education, who argued that "It's clear that you know nothing about our system of assessment and accountability" and insisted that "There are other and better ways to judge the performance of students and schools" than comparing one school to another. (See http://www.edexcellence.net/foundation/gadfly/issue.cfm?id=148#1824 .) A local superintendent also chimed in with a vigorous letter disputing both our interpretation of Nebraska developments and our concept of standards-based reform. We surmise that more than a few of his colleagues have also grumped to each other over their Omaha strip steaks.

Let us be clear. The basic disagreement between us and Nebraska education officials is not the result of our misunderstanding of the workings of the approved NCLB accountability system in the Cornhusker state. Rather, it stems from a fundamental difference of opinion over whether NCLB should serve as just another system for assessing student performance or should fulfill the more ambitious goal of ushering in an era wherein teachers and school administrators are also held accountable for how well they educate their pupils, particularly in comparison to those in other schools, districts, and states.

No Child Left Behind was designed with the express purpose of holding schools and teachers accountable for student learning. It expects each state to create an accountability plan that provides an external audit that obliges every school to demonstrate in objective fashion that it is adequately educating its students vis-à-vis statewide academic standards. That external audit is, in our view, the centerpiece of this plan. Pre- NCLB, most "successful" schools were so judged merely because they had high average test scores, or because a large number of their students went on to college, etc. Those are fine things to do, of course, but high averages can also mask serious achievement gaps within and among schools and districts. NCLB sought to right this wrong by judging schools not only by how well their students do on average, but by using an objective and consistent measure of achievement to judge how all subgroups of students within each of the state's schools are doing.

NCLB further requires states to make public information about each school's performance in order to make clear when a school is or isn't living up to the expectations enshrined in the state's academic standards. By making such information public, NCLB seeks to help parents better judge the quality of their children's school and ultimately to hold educators and elected officials responsible for the quality of education delivered to, and acquired by, their students. (Given that most Americans erroneously think their own child's school is OK, providing such information is essential to eradicating misconceptions and improving the overall quality of education.)

Recall, too, that as part of the grand NCLB bargain between Washington and the states, Title I spending (the dollars attached to NCLB compliance) has risen by 43 percent since 2001. Therefore, it seems to us a bit underhanded for states to defy the spirit of the law and yet continue to receive that money.

Yes, "defy the spirit of the law." That's what we mean to say about Nebraska. While the state has set academic standards, they are intended to serve only as a guide for local districts, which remain free to develop their own so long as these are deemed by the state department of education "equal to or more rigorous" than the state's. If we've learned anything from NCLB implementation, it's that approval processes like these are shaky and exemptions (or loose interpretations) can be counted upon to undermine the effort to guarantee that all students are being held to equivalent—and rigorous—standards.

Nebraska school districts are also able to develop their own assessment systems, which can include norm-referenced tests, criterion-referenced tests, or locally developed classroom assessments (such as student portfolios). That means students across the state are subject to very different types of assessment, some more rigorous and objective than others. This makes comparisons among schools and districts next to impossible. That's music to the ears of Nebraska educators, who, according to their "Questions and answers about Nebraska's assessment system: STARS," feel "it is not appropriate to compare school districts because they are very different." Sorry about that. One purpose of NCLB is to compare schools and districts via objective measures. Such comparisons can provide useful information about which schools are doing better, and which schools need to improve.

By allowing districts to use their own standards and subjective measures of student achievement, Nebraska is basing its system of accountability on the premise that all teachers can be counted upon to do right by their students and be trusted to judge for themselves whether they are providing an adequate education to their students. (As Dr. Christenson puts it, the system requires one "to regard the work of teachers and to trust their judgment and professionalism.") The abiding problem with such a system is that, when a teacher (or principal or superintendent) does not do his/her job, no external audit illuminates that failure.

In the real world of teaching, it's been my experience, we find good teachers and weak teachers as well as good principals and inept principals. Even among the weak and inept, however, many sincerely believe they're doing a good (or good enough) job. External, objective evaluations (from someone with no vested interest in your success or failure) can highlight inadequacies that otherwise might slip under the radar. While it's true that means watching over the shoulders of excellent, hard-working teachers and administrators, too, this seems a modest price to pay to ensure that all of a state's students get an equal chance to succeed in an increasingly competitive world.

Kathleen Porter-Magee, a former middle and high school teacher, is associate research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

by Kathleen Porter-Magee

— Kathleen Porter-Magee



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