The letter, whose complete text can be read at the website of the Forum on Educational Accountability, was signed by the following groups, the list of which I offer first to make clear the widespread agreement on this issue:
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
Civil Rights Project
Council for Exceptional Children
Japanese American Citizens League
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Learning Disabilities Association of America
National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)
National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian,Laotian, and
Vietnamese Americans (NAFEA)
National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents
National Council on Educating Black Children
National Federation of Filipino American Associations National Indian Education Association
National Indian School Board Association
National Pacific Islander Educator Network (NPIEN)
National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA)
(and I note that ASPIRA is the education and leadership development of Puerto Rican and other Latino youth and ACORN is a community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities).
The letter (whose authors have sought my help in publicizing it and given me permission to quote as much as necessary) expresses "strong support for a comprehensive model of accountability" which it seeks through "multiple measures which can focus schools both on developing high quality teaching and learning and on educating all students to graduation." They believe the law can be improved "to better foster genuine educational progress and to hold schools and school systems accountable for a broader array of
important educational outcomes" through the use of "a relatively simple and feasible system of multiple indicators" and they write:
We believe that the accountability provisions must include a system of multiple assessments of learning, which can help schools focus on assessing the full range of standards and skills appropriately, and multiple indicators of school performance, which emphasize the importance of keeping students in school and educating them to graduation.
Ideally, schools should be held accountable for student growth along all parts of the achievement continuum. They should demonstrate continuous progress on an index of indicators comprised of multiple academic assessments, plus measures of student progress through school, such as graduation and grade promotion rates. Together, these components can support a comprehensive and educationally beneficial accountability system.
They note that
A number of studies have found that an exclusive emphasis on (primarily multiple-choice) standardized test
scores has narrowed the curriculum
and which indicated narrowing of curriculum both in increasing limiting of instruction to the subjects tested, reading and math, at the expense of other subject, and even within those subjects narrowing instruction to the limited format (usually only multiple choice) and content of state tests which often over-emphasize low-level learning. The letter goes on to say
As reporter Thomas Toch recently stated, "The problem is that these dumbed-down tests encourage teachers to make the same low-level skills the priority in their classrooms, at the expense of the higher standards that the federal law has sought to promote." To succeed in college, employment and life in general, students need critical thinking and problem solving skills that the tests fail to measure, and they need a complete curriculum.
The letter notes that the every-year testing requirement of the law discourages the use of instruments that test higher-order thinking skills - such instruments are more expensive and time consuming, even as they tend to motivate stronger teaching and learning. While I am not personally a fan of international comparisons, since such comparisons have been used to denigrate American public education, it is interesting that the letter notes
These kinds of assessments – which include written essays, oral examinations, research papers, open-ended problems, and other performance assessments – are routinely used in high-achieving European and Asian systems that emphasize higher-order knowledge and skills. Some of our nation’s highest performing districts and states have given up the high-quality assessments they created in the 1990s, because the law currently acts as a disincentive to encourage their continued use.
Here it is worth noting that Connecticut, When Betty Sternberg was in charge of the state's schools, wanted to maintain its high quality alternative year testing method. The cost of expanding that testing to every year was prohibitive. The response of the US Department of Education was to use cheaper (and hence lower quality) tests to fulfill the mandate of testing every year.
Let me quote a key part of one paragraph that may help explain why these groups are so concerned
Perhaps the most troubling unintended consequence of NCLB has been that the law creates incentives for schools to boost scores by pushing low-scoring students out of school. The very important goal of graduating more of our students has simply not been implemented, and the accountability provisions actually reward schools with high dropout rates. Push-out incentives and the narrowed curriculum are especially severe for students with disabilities, English language learners, students of color and economically disadvantaged students.
Those of us who were critical of the law when first proposed by the White House noted the push-out phenomenon was well-documented in the system in Texas which was serving as a model for the proposal. The authors mention studies which indicate the perverse effects of the law as written that the raising of "standards"is resulting in fewer students, especially of color, receiving an education.
Here in its entirety is the letter's justification for multiple measures of students and schools:
A central part of a solution to these problems is to employ multiple forms of assessment and multiple indicators, while retaining the powerful tools of publicly available assessment information and the critically important focus on equity. A multiple measures approach can help schools and districts improve student outcomes more effectively because:
- The use of multiple measures ensures that attention will be given to a comprehensive academic program and a more complete array of important learning outcomes;
- A multiple measures approach can incorporate assessments that evaluate the full range of standards, including those addressing higher-order thinking and performance skills;
- Multiple measures provide accountability checks and balances so that emphasizing one measure does not come at the expense of others (e.g. boosting test scores by excluding students from school), but they can give greater emphasis to priority areas; and
- A multiple measures index can provide schools and districts with incentives to attend to the progress of students at every point on the achievement spectrum, including those who initially score far below or above the test score cut point labeled "proficient." It can encourage schools to focus on the needs of low-scoring students, students with disabilities, and ELL students, using assessments that measure gains from wherever students begin and helping them achieve growth.
The letter goes on to note use of multiple measures in making economic and business decisions, the possible negative consequences of relying upon single measures, and the professional standards of the measurement community which mandate the use of multiple measures for making major decisions. The current version of NCLB in theory calls for multiple measures of student performance, but the law has failed to promote their use for measuring school progress.
Those Yearlykos attendees who came to the Saturday morning roundtable entitled "Rethinking Educational Accountability" heard Doug Christensen, Commissioner of Education in Nebraska, describe a different way of doing assessment, and Sherman Dorn (who offered this diary with a link to the audio of the session) provide a broader context for assessment and accountability. I mention this because those who did attend or have listened to the audio are quite likely to grasp the basis for the arguments made in the final 4 paragraphs of, which I now quote in their entirety before making a few comments of my own:
Multiple indicators can counter the problems caused by over-reliance on single measures. Multiple forms of assessment include traditional statewide tests as well as other assessments, developed and used locally or statewide, that include a broader range of formats, such as writing samples, research projects, and science investigations, as well as collections of student work over time. These can be scored reliably according to common standards and can inform instruction in order to improve teaching and learning. Such assessments would only be used for accountability purposes when they meet the appropriate technical criteria, reflect state-approved standards, and apply equitably to all students, as is already the case in Connecticut, Nebraska, Oregon, Vermont, and other states successfully using multiple forms of assessment.
To counter the narrowing of the curriculum and exclusion of important subjects that has been extensively documented as a consequence of NCLB, the new law should also allow states to include other subjects, using multiple forms of assessment, in an index of school indicators. To ensure strong attention is given to reading and math, these subjects can be weighted more heavily. Graduation rates and grade promotion rates should be given substantial weight in any accountability system. Other relevant indicators of school progress, such as attendance and college admission rates, could be included.
Because evidence is clear that multiple assessments are beneficial to student learning and accountability decisions, we hope that the committee will take the step of providing significant funds to assist states and districts to implement systems that include multiple forms of evidence about student learning, including state and local performance assessments. Congress should also require an evaluation of state multiple measures programs to enable sharing of knowledge and improvement of state assessment and accountability systems.
A multiple measures approach that incorporates a well-balanced set of indicators would support a shift toward holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement. This is a necessary foundation for genuine accountability.
It is not clear to me that NCLB will be reauthorized this year. Rep. George Miller is determined to get the House version passed, presumably by the end of September. While some of the issues raised in this letter have been discussed within the committee, the Ranking Member (Republican Howard "Buck McKeon)is visibly balking at the idea of multiple measures. And at a recent forum on NCLB sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus a representative of The Education Trust, an organization which claims it is dedicated to closing the "achievement gap" and which carries some weight among centrist members of the House and Senate, strongly opposed the idea of multiple measures. From discussions with staff I have come to believe that when reported to the floor the House version will have a relatively closed rule, making further changes to the committee version exceedingly difficult. That could cause a backlash. While it is not clear when the Senate version will come out of committee, and how different it might be from the House version, all indicators are that it will be at least several weeks later and have some significant differences. And in the Senate, the process of moving a committee measure to acceptance by the full Senate is, of course, far more subject to amending and dilatory tactics.
The danger is that if no reauthorization is sent to the President, we will instead get a continuing resolution, which would maintain funding at the current insufficient levels and allow the clock to continue running on the punitive sanctions. That could have a devastating effect on our schools.
Even with all of the changes suggested in this letter, NCLB will still be a badly flawed piece of legislation. And yet as the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act it is the primary mechanism through which the Federal government provides funds for public schools. IF there is no extension the school that will be most harmed are those with high numbers of minority and poor children. I have noted the impact of a continuing resolution. Thus I see no choice but attempting to make the most significant changes possible in the law.
This letter should carry great weight. It should be widely distributed - to the press, to Members and Senators not on the committees, to anyone with a concern about public education. There is a press release which covers the key issues, which is available at the Forum website in both HTML and PDF formats.
I hope you will consider passing this information on to whomever you think can help with the process. If your Members or Senators are on the Committee in her body, perhaps you can contact them with your support for this initiative: the list of House Committee members can be found here and that for the Senate here.
Please, if you care about public schools, do whatever you can in this effort. I thank you in advance for your cooperation.
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