School Policies Have Gotten Smarter in the Decade After No Child Left Behind

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A decade ago, U.S. education policies were a mess. It was the classic problem of good intentions gone awry.

At the core of the good idea was the commonsense insight that if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should set clear expectations for student learning, measure whether our kids are meeting those expectations, and hold schools accountable for their outcomes (mainly gauged in terms of academic achievement).

And sure enough, under the No Child Left Behind law, every state in the land mustered academic standards in (at least) reading and math, annual tests in grades 3–8, and some sort of accountability system for their public schools.

Unfortunately, those standards were mostly vague, shoddy, or misguided; the tests were simplistic and their “proficiency” bar set too low. The accountability systems encouraged all manner of dubious practices, such as focusing teacher effort on a small subset of students at risk of failing the exams rather than advancing every child’s learning.

What a difference a decade makes. To be sure, some rooms in the education policy edifice remain in disarray. But thanks to the hard work and political courage of the states, finally abetted by some implacable leaders in Washington, the core elements of standards-based reform have seen a reasonably thorough cleansing and dramatic upgrade.

Take the academic standards themselves. We and our colleagues at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have been fans of the Common Core standards. By our lights, they’re dramatically clearer and stronger than most of the state standards they replaced and on par with the rest. They do a good job of incorporating the evidence on what it takes for students to be “college- and career-ready,” and they get most of the big issues right. What’s more, despite all of the political sturm und drang around the Common Core, these ambitious standards are still in place (sometimes with different labels) in more than forty states.

But that’s not all. Part of the promise of the Common Core initiative was that the new standards would be joined by “next-generation” assessments—tests that match the intellectual demands of the Common Core, are harder to game, and actually deserve to guide classroom instruction rather than encourage mindless test preparation. Now we know that this promise has also been kept. A new Fordham study, “Evaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments,” found that the two most widely used new tests (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) are well matched to the Common Core and plenty challenging. (Two other assessments that we examined are strong too, though not quite as good a fit for the standards.)

It would be better if half the states hadn’t decided to go their own way on testing, dropping out of the PARCC or Smarter Balanced consortia (or never joining in the first place). It may turn out that their tests—most of them new—are also sound, but we won’t know until somebody gets under their hoods to see.

What we do know is that even these go-it-alone states have made it more challenging to pass their tests, by setting their “cut scores” at dramatically higher levels than before. This provides a more honest report to parents, teachers, and principals about whether their kids are on track for success. As Harvard University’s Paul Peterson recently wrote in Education Next, “the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.”

Stronger standards, better tests, higher cut scores—so far, so good. But that leaves one last element: the accountability systems themselves (a.k.a. the calculations and labels that states use to grade schools and decide which are doing well and which are candidates for intervention). Here states still have some distance to travel. But thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act (the replacement for No Child Left Behind that President Obama signed late last year), they have more latitude to design systems that accurately distinguish between strong and weak schools.

States can now focus most of their analysis on individual student progress over time—the fairest way to assess the value that schools add to student learning and the best way to disentangle school grades from demographics over which they have scant control. The new law encourages them also to look beyond test scores at “other indicators of student success or school quality”—a smart idea if done right. And they can focus on all their students, not just those on the edge of proficiency, thus correcting our education system’s longstanding neglect of those who have already cleared the bar.

Importantly, the new law also removes the federal mandate—pushed by former Education Secretary Arne Duncan—that states deploy test-based teacher evaluations. That move proved politically poisonous, putting too much weight on the bad old tests while sapping teacher support for the new ones. (Student results will remain available, however, for states and districts that want to incorporate them in teacher evaluations.)

We’ve been known for ages as education gadflies, and we still find plenty to fault when it comes to policy and practice in the United States. But let us be clear: Despite what you might hear from opt-outers and other critics, U.S. standards, tests, and accountability systems are all dramatically stronger, fairer, and more honest than they were a decade ago. You might even call it progress.

—Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This post comes from the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper and originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Washington Post.

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