Bring out your Dead!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Next has a new forum out titled “Is Test-Based Accountability Dead?“that includes Kevin Huffman, Morgan Polikoff and our very own Jay Greene. The crux of the argument (although all the authors make points worthy of consideration) in my view lies between Greene’s political analysis of the situation (school folks + disenchanted parents >> technocrats) and Huffman’s acknowledgement of the difficulties but enduring belief that the old system worked and could yet work if only…

This is where leadership must come into play. It is imperative that governors, state chiefs of education, and other local leaders vocally advocate for the potent change shaper of accountability and convince the public of that power. I am optimistic that state education leaders are availing themselves of the chance to draft stronger, multifaceted measurement systems under ESSA. If voters and parents get behind these systems, and we implement them with fidelity, we will be able to use test results—and other measures—to dramatically improve our public schools.

In my mind this statement recalls the scene in Henry V when the Battle of Agincourt turns decisively against the French. The French noble Orleans exclaims:

We are enough yet living in the field
To smother up the English in our throngs,
If any order might be thought upon.
Go see the play if you need a refresher on how that plan works out for the French. The Huffman piece merits careful examination regardless, as it is actually a good example of how K-12 policy discussions actually occur. Huffman presents evidence on national NAEP scores and attributes a positive trend to testing. Huffman then makes the case that test based accountability systems especially drove improvement in the District of Columbia and Tennessee. Ergo test based systems can drive public school improvement, therefore we must summon up the blood and make them work.

Huffman did not invent this type of reasoning. In the beginning there was Massachusetts-and a nation that strangely lacked curiosity about large package of reforms passed in 1993-It was the testing! Next came North Carolina and Texas to justify NCLB. And then Finland (?!?) and then Florida. Huffman proposes to add DC and Tennessee to the list to make the case for test based improvement strategies “I’m not dead yet!”

Properly trained social scientists of course will pull their hair out and mutter “wacky sassafras!” at such violence being done to the proper ascribing of causality. Given that this is how such conversations take place, we can at a minimum look under the hood of such claims-do they square with more rigorous empirical evidence? Has there been any effort made to explore alternative explanations or look at subgroup trends? Usually not-most often this is “tell me a story and let’s run with it!” So let’s turn some (minimal) attention towards the DC and Tennessee examples.

As has been discussed previously here at Jayblog, DC represents a complex case involving multiple powerful factors other than test based accountability- including massive gentrification and a powerful amount of parental choice. The only positive trend above and beyond the national average for low-income children in DC locates itself in the charter sector. Ergo it is hard to make the case that DC’s testing system is doing something especially impressive in my book.

So let’s consider Tennessee, and a non-tested area of Science under the theory that character is about what you do when you think no one is looking:


Tennessee fares quite well in progress on NAEP Science. Tennessee also scored near the top on 4th to 8th grade Math and Reading cohort gains between 2011 and 2015. Unlike DC, neither a massive dose of gentrification or parental choice has yet made it to Tennessee, so let’s acknowledge that Tennessee students have displayed positive gains on the NAEP, including in areas outside of accountability testing. Tennessee seems to be a case worthy of examination (i.e. closer examination than I can provide in my pajamas) but let’s assume for the moment that Huffman is correct that the test based policies have been driving Tennessee improvement. What then?

Greene’s constituency politics analysis still likely prevails in the medium term. The lack of a “test my child more!” constituency added to the overt hostility of public school employees almost certainly places this strategy on borrowed time. Now if someone made me the Baron of Arizona and the federal government sent down a diktat that we were going to do testings and ratings, I would happily study what TN did and consider imposing it. “You have to have some kind of tests and ratings, why not ones that seem to have driven improvements?” would be a phrase likely to fall from Baron von Arizona’s lips. We however do not live in an imperial system, but rather in a democracy. This makes securing the consent of the governed necessary. Even in an imperial system, the peasants will stage frequent uprisings if and when they are sufficiently motivated.

The title of the Ed Next forum pretty much answers its own question. Whether or not such improvement strategies are “dead” we have reason to suspect have practical limits and constraints and that we have likely hit the ceiling.





5 Responses to Bring out your Dead!

  1. What do other high-performing countries do for “accountabiity” in K-12? Use annual tests to try to ensure teachers are teaching? Or do they ensure strong teachers and curriculum materials (e.g., Singapore) and let the chips fall where they may?

    • Politics matter. So it is worth remembering that the highly decentralized nature of US politics dominated by organized interests makes the imposition of meaningful test based accountability unlikely.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Also, there is no single answer to the question “what do other high performing countries do?” Some use lots of testing and others don’t.

        “What do other high performing countries do?” is also the wrong question to ask, as Matt points out. WACKY SASSAFRAS!

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Regarding the “it works in Finland” argument: The technocratic mind not only cannot abide the perpetual uncertainty and ambiguity created by proper analysis of causation (WACKY SASSAFRAS!), it also cannot abide any sort of locality. There is only generic humanity which is the same everywhere. There are no local or national communities. There are no variations in needs, beliefs or preferences. There is also no history; the universe begins again every day and all social phenomena are solely the result of Pelagian radical autonomy. Therefore what works in Finland must work in Alabama, and if those inbred hicks don’t like it, we must force them to be free.

  3. I didn’t know that ESSA reflects the “highly decentralized nature of US politics.” Interesting. That’s right–there’s no single answer to accountability if one looks outside the USA. So, how did we get stuck with one answer?

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