Monday, April 25, 2011

Accountability on Crack

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
NCLB is not going anywhere soon, nor is our national obsession with accountability for accountability’s sake. In fact, California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) wants to take accountability to a whole new level. Call it accountability on crack (I’m sick of the whole “on steroids” cliché, as if steroids simply made things stronger or bigger. I think an addiction cliché is more apropos.)

SB 547 introduces a host of performance indicators to be included in high schools’ Academic Performance Index (API) in addition to math and reading scores, such as how well they are preparing students for college and work. According to Fred Jones (writing for Thoughts On Public Education), the new API would include (among other things) the number of students successfully completing college preparatory courses, as well as the academic or workforce performance of students a year after they have graduated from high school.

While it is certainly misleading to judge a school simply on its math and reading scores, virtually all accountability schemes are proxies that primarily measure the social class of the students. Schools with high levels of poverty tend to have lower reading and math scores, but they also tend to have lower numbers of students who graduate on time, as well as lower numbers of students passing college preparatory, career and technical education and advanced placement courses.  Therefore, this new API will still be biased toward middle class schools, giving higher scores to schools with wealthier clientele, while telling us very little about the quality of the teachers and the academic programs at the schools.

Jones says that API has developed an “exaggerated importance” in our society, even affecting property values near a school. However, I would argue that API should have no importance whatsoever and should be completely discarded, along with the tests and punishments that go with it. Since API is just a proxy for the socioeconomic status of a school’s students, prospective home buyers will get much more direct data on the wealth of their future neighbors from other sources like the census or real estate websites. If, on the other hand, one wants an accurate picture of the quality of a school, one should visit the school, talk to teachers, parents and students, and read the local press. More importantly, if we really want to see schools perform better or close the achievement gap, we need to close the wealth and income gaps.

Jones makes the interesting point that by assessing more than just math and reading, there will be pressure on schools and districts to fund and support other courses and possibly reverse some of the damage caused by NCLB. Steinberg’s bill places special emphasis on Career and Technical Education (CTE)—formally known as shop—which has been declining throughout the state. According to Jones, 75% of secondary students took CTE courses in 1987, compared with only 29% last year. Considering the skyrocketing costs of college, a lot of students would benefit from getting a little job training in high school. However, this is becoming more and more difficult, not only because budget cuts are decimating CTE courses, but because NCLB and API look primarily at math and reading, encouraging schools to reduce or eliminate programs to make room for math and reading remediation and support (see here and here). However, considering that California is on the verge of cutting an additional $4 billion from k-12 education, after cutting $18 billion over the previous three years, it is absurd to think that accountability will force districts to spend money they do not have on electives.

Ultimately, Steinberg’s scheme will result in more bureaucracy and costs to k-12 education at a time when it can hardly afford it, while adding little new useful information. NCLB cannot be salvaged by adding on new layers of accountability and testing. NCLB is a failure not because it narrowly focuses only on math and reading, but because it relies on student achievement as a proxy to measure school quality. Adding more proxies won’t make poor kids more successful.

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