06/26/2011 10:23 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2011

Research Calls Data-Driven Education Reforms Into Question

Two new reports on standards-based accountability and incentive systems should end the current thrust of U.S. education policy.

The first, by the National Academies' National Research Council, investigated the impact of high stakes tests, the basis for current accountability measures. The second, by the National Center on Education and the Economy, studied U.S. reform strategies compared to schooling in higher performing countries. Both organizations are respected for their high quality, comprehensive, and non-ideological research. Together, they reach the undeniable conclusion that today's array of testing and choice fails to meet the instructional needs of American students and the national goal of broadly-based high academic achievement.

The NRC study, "Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education," was produced by its Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability, representing scholars and activists from a broad swath of policy perspectives. Yet, broad as the committee's background was in studying a comprehensive, decade-long research base, its first of two conclusions is stark:

Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.[bold in original, quoted in part]

Perhaps even more alarming is its second conclusion:

The evidence we have reviewed suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.[bold in original, quoted in part]

The NCEE report, "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for School Reform" by Marc S. Tucker, directly compares U.S. reform efforts to those of leading education nations whose strategies were studied at the request of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). Based on this data-set, Tucker concludes that "much of the current reform agenda in this country is irrelevant, a detour from the route we must follow if we are to match the performance of the best [countries]."

No one would argue from these reports that all standardized testing is bad or that school personnel and students shouldn't be held accountable for their work. Nor would it be possible or even wise to undo the array of choices students have in terms of public, private, magnet, and other school options. But the centrality of testing, test-based decision-making, and charters/vouchers to the current reform agenda is squarely challenged by these compelling, diligent undertakings.

Yet, since release of these reports in late May, reformers have taken nary a breath in their quest for yet broader uses of high stakes tests and choice. Race to the Top II is in full swing and "RttT I" wastes billions for disproven testing strategies and sanctions based on their results. The governors of New Jersey and Michigan are calling for privatized management of urban public schools. Teacher unions are under fire despite their widespread presence in leading education nations. New charter school laws are advancing across the country.

This blind march, despite hard evidence to the contrary, indicates something other than the "data-driven decision-making" which reform advocates have long claimed as their motto. The left decries corporations' profit motive in pushing for charters and testing. Surely this is part of the surge. But more is at work, a political moment that can be seized by private interests but not wholly explained by their support. The bad economy has influenced voters tired of ever-increasing school budgets that especially pinch during a period of stagnant wages and high unemployment. Then there is the siren song of palliative solutions, of the American Dream come true through hard knocks, determination, merit and entrepreneurism. Put another way, alternative educational solutions based on notions of poverty-based determinism hold little allure for a polity wary of redistributive strategies that always seem to help the other guy.

So we are stuck, mired in disproven reform strategies without the political will to reach abroad for new ideas. This stasis will give way but, for now, the country seems committed to denying data that we otherwise pretend to follow.