America's high-stakes testing based "school reform" movement of the last two decades is currently being tried in the court of public opinion. Increasingly, it's being judged as failing.
Many states and local communities have already spoken out against key accountability mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) -- from labeling so many schools failing, to mandating virtually 100 percent of students be academically proficient by 2014, to imposing escalating sanctions on schools not making Adequate Yearly Progress.
Moreover, from Texas to Florida, Seattle to Providence, there's a growing backlash against high-stakes testing itself, whether federally or state-mandated. Citizens are rebelling against serious time losses from normal academic study, narrowing curriculum, harmful pressures and ineffectiveness in providing students essential 21st century higher-order thinking and communications skills. In June, citizen pushback even caused the Texas legislature and governor to repeal 10 of 15 state-mandated graduation tests.
Now that Congress is seriously considering reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently called "NCLB," is a more promising strategy emerging that could replace high-stakes testing as the dominant strategy of American school reform? The good news -- largely hidden by the intense partisan debate over the proper federal role in education -- is "yes."
In recent years, key members of Congress and the Obama administration, as well as national stakeholder organizations, have recognized that certain policies and practices do help low-achieving schools improve. Seen together, these policies and practices suggest a potentially profound development for America school reform: replacing high-stakes testing with a sound, new strategy for improving America's low-achieving schools.
Under this strategy, governments' central role is to adopt and fund policies that directly help low-achieving schools improve. The chief way to do this is to implement what's already known to work.
Although I know of no congressional bill that fully embodies this strategy, parts of the Senate education committee Democrats' June ESEA reauthorization bill, Strengthening America's Schools Act (SASA), move significantly in this direction.
By requiring states to publicly report -- for schools in Title I-funded districts that fail to meet outcome targets two years running -- which interventions had "exemplary outcomes," Sect. 1116(b)(1)(2), SASA is implicitly encouraging states and localities to replicate what works. By expressly requiring any Title I-funded school which fails to meet such targets for three years to institute an "intervention based on established best practices within State[,]" Sect. 1116(b)(3), Senate Democrats make their intent explicit: such low-achieving schools must concentrate on implementing what works to help schools improve.
Further, SASA and the Higher Education Act (HEA) endorse specific policies and practices that work. These may be usefully grouped under the five elements described in "Common Elements of Successful School Turnarounds" (2010) by Ratner and Neill.
- Leadership - To overcome the huge shortage of principals with the knowledge and skills necessary to lead successful turnarounds of our consistently low-achieving public schools, SASA creates a program to distil a "core body of knowledge" of what works to lead improvements in such schools and then train and mentor principals specifically for this purpose. Sect. 2151(d)(2)(B),(e).
- Instructional Improvement - To vastly improve preparation of future teachers, the 2008 HEA required and funded teacher preparation institutions receiving Teacher Quality Partnership Grants to provide at least one year of closely supervised clinical training, integrating methods and theory courses into candidate practice. Pub. L. 110-315, Sect. 202(d)(2)(A)(B).
- To improve the knowledge and skills of existing teachers in "priority schools" - essentially the lowest-achieving schools -- SASA's requirements include providing for teacher collaboration, professional development addressing teachers' particular needs, and periodic evaluations, including feedback on strengths and weaknesses. Sect. 1116(d)(4)(A))(i-vi)
- Curriculum - Recognizing that academic content standards weren't high enough for many public school children, State organizations developed grade-level "Common Core Standards." SASA requires similar standards of States receiving Title I grants, Sect. 1111(a)(1)(A)(i-ii), and 45 States and D.C. have adopted the Common Core. While I oppose linking high-stakes testing to such standards as unnecessary and harmful, for low-achieving students to become career and college ready, they must be provided a challenging academic curriculum. Insofar as the standards themselves would help to ensure that, they'd be invaluable.
- Climate - Under SASA, districts must provide assistance to help priority schools implement "schoolwide positive behavior supports, school-based mental health programs, and other approaches with evidence of effectiveness, for improving the learning environment and reducing ... suspensions [and] expulsions [ .]" Sect. 1116(d)(3)(B)(xii)(II)
- Parent and Community Involvement and Support - SASA requires State plans to provide for implementing "evidence based or promising" practices to enable parents to effectively support their children's learning at home and to partner with school staff. They must also promote provision of support services for family members -- especially in high need districts and schools. Sect. 1111(C)(1) Further, State plans must provide for recruiting community members and resources to help strengthen family involvement and support for student learning. Sect. 1111(c)(4) The July, House-passed reauthorization bill, "Student Success Act," authorizes a State grant program for generally similar purposes. H.R. 5, 113th Cong., 1st Sess., Sect. 3141-3144.
National education organizations -- including the National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, Association of American School Administrators, American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and Council of Chief State School Officers - support various of these policies. Civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., support shifting federal education policy toward helping low-achieving schools improve.
Finally, SASA recognizes that improving individual schools is a complex process and that there are sound ways to do it. Specifically, priority schools must undertake an improvement process that begins with a comprehensive analysis of needs, including curriculum, instruction, school climate, parent involvement and resources, and encompasses engaging stakeholders, a 3 year budget, and adjusting plans as needed. Sect. 1116(d)(2),(3)(B)(iii, vii),(4)(A)(v). Further, in its principal training program, SASA recognizes that the school improvement process needs to include delegating leadership to teams, promoting collaboration between teachers and principals, expecting high achievement, and providing time for teachers to plan together, Sect. 2151(e)(5)(B)(C)(iv),(E), (G) - all components of the "Common Elements."
In short, Congress is increasingly paying attention to what's required to improve schools and recognizing that it has important roles to play. Now, as Congress considers acting on the Senate committee's SASA and the House ESEA reauthorization bill, it needs to stop pressuring stakeholders to raise standardized test scores. Instead, it needs to treat scores as one measure of how much further schools must go in implementing the policies and practices of successful turnarounds and concentrate on helping schools improve.
Now is the critical time for Congress to shift from NCLB's punitive, harmful and ineffective high-stakes testing strategy to a supportive, beneficial and effective strategy: guiding, assisting, funding and holding accountable our low-achieving schools to improve by doing what works.