Imagine No Social Mobility (It’s Easy If You Try)

January 25, 2018

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As a part of Education Week’s recent series on 10 BIG Ideas, businessman Mark Barnes made the case for eliminating grades:

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Imagine! It’s easy if you try!

In a gradeless classroom, the perpetual lies that numbers and letters tell about learning would cease to exist. Honor and merit rolls would disappear. There would be no school valedictorian. Clubs that celebrate high performers would disband. Many colleges and universities would change how they admit incoming freshmen, and academic scholarships would need a makeover.

It’s no secret that I have libertarian sensibilities, so I certainly don’t want the state mandating that schools give grades (or not give grades, for that matter). Schools and educators should be free to pursue what they believe is the best system of assessment, and parents should be free to choose the learning environments they think best for their children.

That said, while I’m all in favor of abolishing grade levels (a.k.a., Carnegie units), the drive to abolish objective assessments of students’ work that makes it relatively easy to compare their level of proficiency to other students gives me great pause. It’s not just that competition be a great motivator for students, or that grades help students and their teachers and parents identify and correct their deficiencies, although those are crucial functions. As champion educator Doug Lemov recently explained, grades are essential for social mobility:

The problem is that when I close my eyes and imagine a world without GPAs and report cards and tests (duh, obviously we’d get rid of the tests) I don’t see Utopia. I see aristocracy.

Then I open my eyes, because even with deep breathing ideas like this strike me as more harm than good. Far more.

Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out. 

Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.

When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.

The role grades and standardized assessments have played in social mobility in America, particularly for people of color, is an area where some libertarian educator reformers have sometimes had a blind spot (mea culpa). Much of the anger among black education reformers toward the opt-out movement stems from the fact that it was those very standardized tests that helped shine a spotlight on just how badly America’s district school system was failing students of color.

I still firmly believe that the unintended consequences of mandating a single test outweigh the benefits, but that’s only because I am also confident that there are less onerous means of objectively assessing students and schools (e.g., a menu of nationally norm-referenced tests) that would still reveal unjust racial gaps without the downsides of a single test. Eliminate testing altogether, however, and those racial gaps won’t disappear — they’ll just be rendered invisible again. As Lemov explains, that wouldn’t be so bad for the elites, but it would be terrible for low-income minorities:

But that is partly what’s behind starry-eyed (and immensely popular) dreams like ‘let’s imagine a word with no grades.’  An argument like this is the luxury of caste — you only propose it if you are already in the elite.

When you eliminate evaluations you eliminate mobility. When you are already in the privileged class, this means cementing your place at the top whether or not you hide that fact behind egalitarian sounding aphorisms and ideology.

Anyway, please do not be fooled. Dreamy promises of ungraded Utopias are, in the end, dreamy promises of aristocracy.


Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores

March 6, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In case you missed it, in today’s U.S. News & World Reportthe inimitable Robert Pondiscio gently chides fellow school choice advocates for getting caught up in a debate over test scores, which are ancillary to the true value of school choice:

Wonky battles over research studies can be illuminating. They can also be irrelevant or premature. While [school choice] advocates are correct that the preponderance of evidence tends to favor school choice, this entire debate puts the cart before the horse. When we look to test-based evidence – and look no further – to decide whether choice “works,” we are making two rather extraordinary, unquestioned assumptions: that the sole purpose of schooling is to raise test scores, and that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.

That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the “evidence” that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child’s talents or interests or your family’s values and traditions, the question of whether school choice “works” has already been answered. It’s working perfectly for you.

Deciding whether or not to permit parents to choose based on test-based evidence is presumptuous. It says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing. Worse, our evidence-based debate presumes that a single, uniform school structure is and ought to be the norm, and that every departure from that system must justify itself in terms of a narrow set of outcomes that may not reflect parents’ – or society’s – priorities. Academic outcomes matter, of course, but so do civic outcomes, character development, respect for diversity and faith and myriad others.

This isn’t to say that the research on the effect of school choice on test scores is meaningless. But it has to be read and understood in the broader context. Test scores are important, but they’re far from what’s most important about exercising educational choice. As Pondiscio concludes:

School choice proponents who seek to prove that vouchers, tax credits and scholarships “work” by citing test-score-based research have allowed themselves to be lured into argument that can never be completely won. They have tacitly agreed to a reductive frame and a debate over what evidence is acceptable (test scores) and what it means to “win” (better test scores). This is roughly akin to arguing whether to shop at your neighborhood grocery store vs. Wal-Mart based on price alone. Price is important, but you may have reasons for choosing the Main Street Grocery that matter more to you than the 50 cents per pound you’d save on ground beef. Perhaps Main Street’s fresh local produce and personal service are more important to you.

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

Amen, brother!


When “Sorry” Means “J’Accuse”

July 28, 2008

The letter "J'accuse"

The following column about a letter appeared on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday, July 23.  The letter is in the form of an apology, but it is actually a series of accusations about testing and accountability.  Like another front page letter of accusation, this one has all of Emile Zola’s moral outrage but has none of Zola’s justification.

I’ve reprinted it here with my comments in blue italics.

Students pass state test, but at what cost to their education?

by Regina Brett

The school report cards came out in June.

Rocky River Middle School passed the 2008 Ohio Achievement Tests, earned an Excellent rating from the state and met the requirements for Annual Yearly Progress.

For all of those accomplishments, Principal David Root has only one thing to say to the students, staff and citizens of Rocky River:

He’s sorry.

Root wants to issue an apology. He sent it to me typed out in two pages, single spaced.

He’s sorry that he spent thousands of tax dollars on test materials, practice tests, postage and costs for test administration.

Actually, he did not spend the money.  The taxpayers did when they decided through their elected representatives to adopt a testing and accountability system.  They then hired David Root to implement this policy in his capacity as principal at a public school.

Sorry that his teachers spent less time teaching American history because most of the social studies test questions are about foreign countries.

I guess the people of Ohio thought it was important for students to learn about foreign countries when they, through their elected representatives and hired agents, devised the state curriculum and test.  Besides, if students learned more about foreign countries they might know who Emile Zola was.

Sorry that he didn’t suspend a student for assaulting another because that student would have missed valuable test days.

Sounds pretty irresponsible.  Would he have made a different decision if the student would have missed valuable instructional days?  If so, whose fault is that?  Oh yes, I forgot that this is an accusation, not an apology.

Sorry he didn’t strictly enforce attendance because all absences count against the school on the State Report Card.

So, is David Root saying that he cheated on the state accountability system?  Isn’t this like lying to your boss about your job performance?  Will he be fired, sanctioned, or resign to make amends for his infraction?

He’s sorry for pulling children away from art, music and gym, classes they love, so they could take test-taking strategies.

Why didn’t he just follow the state curriculum and let the scores show what students knew? The decision to take time away for “test-taking strategies”  was completely unnecessary given that more than 90% of Rocky River students have been scoring above the proficient level in reading, math, and writing.  It sounds like they would have done just fine on the state test without working on test-taking strategies and having spent more time on art, music, and gym.

Sorry that he has to give a test where he can’t clarify any questions, make any comments to help in understanding or share the results so students can actually learn from their mistakes.

How reliable would the results be if principals could clarify questions, help in understanding, or share secure test items that would be re-used on future tests?  Does every assessment have to be a formative assessment?

Sorry that he kept students in school who became sick during the test because if they couldn’t finish the test due to illness, the student automatically fails it.

This sounds like a difficult decision.  Football coaches similarly have to think about whether to take injured players out of the game versus having the players tough it out.  We pay leaders to make these difficult decisions, balancing competing interests wisely.

Sorry that the integrity of his teachers is publicly tied to one test.

Actually, the state accountability system — let alone “the integrity of his teachers” —  is not based on one test.  The overall rating of Rocky River Middle School is based on several test results (in Reading, Math, Writing, Social Studies, and Science), the progress students have made in those subjects, and (as we already heard about) the possibly fraudulent attendance rate.

He apologized for losing eight days of instruction due to testing activities.

I thought Root didn’t want one test, so it takes time to administer several.  While testing takes place on eight days it does not (or at least does not have to) consume the entirety of those days.  My understanding is that the average student only spent two mornings being tested, as testing occurred in different grades and subjects for different students across eight days.

For making decisions on assemblies, field trips and musical performances based on how that time away from reading, math, social studies and writing will impact state test results.

I would hope that the principal would think about how assemblies, field trips, and musical performances impact instructional time for other academic subjects regardless of whether those subjects are part of a state accountability system.

For arranging for some students to be labeled “at risk” in front of their peers and put in small groups so the school would have a better chance of passing tests.

Again, if smaller group instruction would help certain students, the principal should arrange for that regardless of the state accountability system.  And the principal would have to think of a way to provide that necessary assistance without stigmatizing the students who need it.

For making his focus as a principal no longer helping his staff teach students but helping them teach test indicators.

Why didn’t he just help his staff teach the subjects with confidence that the test indicators would show what they had learned?  This is especially puzzling given how likely it is that students at Rocky River would pass the state test without paying any special attention to test-taking strategies.

Root isn’t anti-tests. He’s all for tests that measure progress and help set teaching goals. But in his eyes, state achievement tests are designed for the media to show how schools rank against each other.

Seems like the state accountability system does measure progress and help set teaching goals.  What’s wrong with it also informing the public and policymakers (via the media) about how their schools are doing?

He’s been a principal for 24 years, half of them at Rocky River Middle School, the rest in Hudson, Alliance and Zanesville. He loves working with 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

“I have a strong compassion for the puberty stricken,” he joked.

His students, who are 11, 12, 13 and 14, worry that teachers they love will be let go based on how well they perform.

One asked him, “If I don’t do well, will you fire my teacher?”

He cringed when he heard one say, “I really want to do well, but I’m not that smart.”

Has a single tenured teacher in Ohio (or in the United States) been let go based on performance on state accountability tests?  Maybe he should reassure the students that their concern is misplaced.

He wants students to learn how to think, not take tests.

Can’t they do both?

“We don’t teach kids anymore,” he said. “We teach test-taking skills. We all teach to the test. I long for the days when we used to teach kids.”

Why not just return to those days and let the test results show what kids have learned?

Unless we get back to those days, principals and teachers all over Ohio will continue to spend your tax dollars to help students become the best test takers they can be.

The people of Ohio decided to adopt an accountability system because the schools weren’t doing an adequate job teaching kids to think without it.  The “just trust us to do a good job” approach wasn’t working.

(edited to add color)