(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
So I tuned into the Fordham Foundation podcast yesterday, only to find that Fordham is stubbornly holding onto a misapprehension that their own research ought to have disabused them of long ago, namely that standardized testing equates to “accountability.”
This came up in a discussion of the Arizona ESA court ruling. Broad misunderstandings of the program were on display, especially regarding the term “accountability.”
Sigh. Let’s start with the basics. The dictionary defines the word accountability as:
the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.
Standardized testing is widespread in education, but “accountability” is scarce indeed. So in my state more or less every public school student takes the AIMS test, but you would struggle to find anyone who is held “accountable” for the results. Forty percent of 4th graders in Arizona scored below basic on the 2013 NAEP reading test, but good luck finding a policymaker, superintendent, teacher or parent who was held “accountable.” Strangely enough, no one accepted responsibility for this sad state of affairs, making this a very unique form of accountability one where no one is ever held responsible.
So what Mike and Michelle seem to actually be talking about is academic transparency to the public. Arizona’s ESA program is indeed lacking in any form of academic transparency to the public. There are a variety of forms this could take, some much more sensible than others, and Arizona policymakers would do well to pick one of them. If they don’t pick one of the reasonable models, one must assume that an unreasonable model will be imposed sooner or later. I’ve testified on a number of occasions at the Arizona legislature that policymakers should embrace transparency in the program. I will keep on doing it in the future.
Now let’s discuss the difference between faux and vrai accountability.
Kathy Visser, the mother of Jordan Visser, an ESA student featured in the above video, testified before the Arizona legislature regarding accountability recently. She more or less noted that for all this shallow talk of “accountability” in this particular hearing (holding the same flawed understanding of the term displayed by Fordham) that there is in fact accountability in the ESA program. Everyone who educates Jordan is directly accountable to her.
Good luck getting that level of accountability in the public school system.
I followed up with Ms. Visser in a subsequent conversation. She experienced a number of difficulties in the public school system that are sadly common for special needs families. She had an open enrollment request denied without explanation with a public school official going so far as to hang up the phone on her. She consulted a specialized attorney who helps special needs families, but found the $15,000 retainer financially out of reach. Fortunately the attorney told her about the ESA program.
Ms. Visser first tried a private school for Jordan. She related that Jordan did not have a terrible experience in the private school, but that she decided to try the customized education approach with private tutors and therapists featured in the video above. Ms. Visser agreed that with a school voucher like the McKay Scholarship Program, she would have been able to hold the public schools accountable for the services they provided Jordan. With an ESA, she can hold all providers accountable private schools, tutors, therapists, you name it.
That my friends is true accountability, you know, the kind where people actually get held responsible for their results. Not the largely phony kind of accountability where states administer dummied down academic exams with massive item exposure, dropping cut scores, and all sorts of statistical games and tricks and other problems that I have read about in Fordham reports with most states obscuring things further behind fuzzy labels whose scale almost no one understands.
The type of “accountability” that Fordham is talking about however has proven to be baloney in most states for decades now. Even in states with the most useful testing systems, like Massachusetts and Florida, you won’t find any parents wielding the type of authority exercised by Kathy Visser. It’s long past time for us to recognize the difference between genuine accountability and mere bullshit accountability.
UPDATE: In the interest of fairness please note that Mike did say he supports the ESA program in the podcast and expressed that we should let this experiment play out. My point is not to claim that the ESA program is perfect (it isn’t) but rather that our notions of what constitutes “accountability” badly need a reboot.