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“For a real shot at improving #ed, don’t bind accountability to standardized test scores”. 

July 9, 2017

This week’s newsletter from the Christensen Institute features a provocative article by Thomas Arnett titled “School Boards: Good For Policy, Bad For Management“. Mr. Arnett’s premise is that when it comes to managing schools, Boards should cede their control to a strong administrator. He writes:

Management through democratic consensus only works when board members largely agree on how the school system should be run. Unfortunately, this circumstance rarely exists outside of small and demographically homogeneous communities. Instead, the teachers, administrators, unions, taxpayers, parents, and politicians who back and elect board members often have divergent priorities and disagree strongly about how to improve education. Furthermore, all these constituent groups have different ideas of what will cause improvement—from more money to more computers, from better teachers to smaller class sizes, and many more.

In low-consensus circumstances, the only way for an organization to make progress beyond the status quo is to give strong leaders the authority to define a vision for change and then drive the organization in a new direction. But superintendents in districts with democratically-elected boards rarely get the power they need to make change happen. Inevitably, some constituent groups elect a few activist board members with a mandate to drive their own agendas. Once this happens, the divergent priorities of board members pull the district in multiple directions at once, making it nearly impossible for superintendents to prioritize their efforts or purposefully pursue any particular goal.

In these paragraphs, Mr. Arnett provides a good overview of the tensions that exist between Superintendents, Boards, and the various constituent groups each serves. But there is one factor that he overlooks in his analysis: the impact of standardized testing. Before the advent of NCLB, the various constituent groups not only had debates over how the district should be RUN, they also had debates over how to MEASURE how well schools are being run. When NCLB came to town, the debate about measurement disappeared: test scores were all that mattered…. and that determination had a HUGE impact on decision making up-and-down the chain of command and within districts. And the reliance on tests as the primary metric for “quality” is now having a subtle but powerful impact on the way schools are managed…. and the impact is not beneficial.

With summative standardized test scores used as the ultimate measure of “quality”, individual and collective student progress is measured against other students in an age cohort. Because TIME is the only variable available to administrators and teachers when PERFORMANCE on tests is viewed as a constant benchmark, schools serving students who fall on the low end of a statistical artifact— namely the bell curve created by standardized test writers— devote more time to teaching those items. Another consequence of test-centered metrics is that teachers in those schools spend much of their energy working with students who are on the cusp of achieving another statistical artifact, namely the “cut score”. This leads to the ultimate adverse effect of test-centered metrics: an ever widening divergence between affluent schools and schools serving children in poverty. Because test scores align with wealth, “high achieving” schools tend to serve children raised in affluence and “low achieving” schools tend to serve children raised in poverty. As noted above, teachers in “low achieving” schools need to devote more and more of their time teaching-to-the-test and those districts, consequently, devote more and more of their resources to that narrow goal. When faced with the budget difficulties that emerged after 2008, districts serving children raised in poverty shed “frills” like Art, Music, PE, and social services. Affluent districts, on the other hand, were not only more insulated from the budget hits of 2008, their teachers generally ignored the STATE standardized tests since their students scored in the higher ranges without requiring any focused instruction. Finally, and most importantly from my perspective, the use of summative standardized tests as the primary metric precludes any move toward mastery learning ,where student progress is measured based on formative tests.

As the paragraph above illustrates, with standardized tests as the ultimate metric, neither administrators nor school boards have any choice about which master to serve: they MUST ensure that test scores are high or they will lose their jobs (if they are administrators) or lose local control of their schools (if they are a Board).

Mr. Arnett’s tweet on his article read “For a real shot at improving #ed, don’t bind admins to divergent demands of multiple masters”. My tweet on the question of governance and change, noted above, reads: “For a real shot at improving #ed, don’t bind accountability to standardized test scores”.

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