Release of New York City “Progress Reports” and a plethora of other news from around the country reveal the tough truth that high-stakes accountability fails to raise academic achievement. Indeed, it leads to watering down the very standards its advocates espouse, merely producing talking points that politicians and administrators use to claim success in reaching empty benchmarks.
New York’s admission that 75% of high school grads can’t do C-level work at City University campuses appears to be the cost of raising graduation rates to approximately 60%, up 10% in a decade. Cheating scandals in other cities demonstrate a different aspect of high-stakes accountability: the data can’t be trusted. In Los Angeles, a settlement has just been reached requiring federal oversight in the instruction of Black and Latino students whose performance lags despite years of high-stakes testing and sticks based on disaggregating data under No Child Left Behind.
If the cost of this was just hot air, we could simply hope that it doesn’t appreciably increase global warming. But high-stakes accountability has hurt education! Curricula have been narrowed, students have passed courses without subject mastery, recreation has suffered, and innumerable educators have left the profession rather than succumb to the dumbed-down monotony of test prep and public shaming. When the only way to “achieve” is to pass students in courses and widely-criticized standardized tests, the bar has not only been lowered, it’s been removed.
What to do? Real standards have to be established with real consequences. While all children can learn, all children can’t pass. Or at least not without the kind of work and discipline that used to be called studying. Teachers need to be freed from short-term accountability and evaluative calculations riddled with error. Principals should be able to make decisions without worrying about their marginal impact on meaningless distinctions between data points. We live in an era of Data Gone Wild, driven rather than informed by imprecise measures that even their advocates admit are still rudimentary.
If this sounds like a return to the subjectivity and complacency of yesteryear, it’s not. American education has been changed forever by the standards movement and technological advances that enable us to capture and use information as never before. But hard-and-fast standards and the ability to use data immediately have perverted instructional and assessment processes that require reflection as well as action.
How we put together the data – uncontextualized, often contradictory, changeable – is at least as important as having it. Think of financial and securities analysts who, in a global network using myriad data points to assess organizational performance, frequently come to differing conclusions. Yet district leaders, with a limited set of primitive quantitative measures, are forced by today’s political climate to make mathematically-driven, high-stakes decisions regarding school closures, teacher terminations, and the like. Students are collateral damage in a numerical game of “gotcha.”
Restraint and moderation are needed, fighting words to zealots of the standards movement who rely on the positive tones of “urgency” and “boldness,” even “civil rights,” to frighten critics and the general public into premature adoption of unsupported fads. Their moralism hides fanaticism. As Isaiah Berlin warned in his work, Two Concepts of Liberty, it is a mistake to believe ''that all values can be graded on one scale.''
The human component, reaching decisions through pluralistic outreach and respect for different views, takes time and humility. There is not one way. High stakes accountability has its price and we have learned that the costs in achievement, in creativity, and in collaboration are too high.