Test-free accountability?

“Concerns” about Common Core standards primarily are about “the consequences of high-stakes tests attached to the standards,” write Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. They call for a “new accountability.”

Their model is California. Their bad example is New York.

They call for a “support-and-improve model” instead of a “test-and-punish approach.”

The “new accountability” appears to mean no accountability, respond Kati Haycock of the Education Trust and her former colleague, Russlyn Ali.

The Weingarten/Darling-Hammond piece is rife with omissions and unsupported innuendo. Our particular favorite from among their many claims is the assertion that California’s record graduation rates and recent gains on national eighth-grade math and reading exams are the result of new funding formulas and testing policies that weren’t even put into place until after these gains.

Teachers’ unions are trying to get rid of John King, New York’s commissioner of education, write Haycock and Ali. He’s “in a hurry” to improve education, while California’s system suffers from the pobrecito phenomenon. Expectations are low for poor immigrant students and “hugging kids is too often considered an acceptable substitute for teaching them.”

There are “huge real-life consequences” for students who don’t meet educational standards, even if their states link no official “stakes” to exams, Haycock and Ali write. “Those who exit high school with the skills to succeed in college have a real future in our knowledge-based economy; those who do not have strong skills are essentially toast.”

Open the exam school doors

New York City’s elite exam schools, such as Stuyvesant High and Bronx School of Science, admit very few low-income, black or Hispanic students, writes Michael Holzman, research director for the Schott Foundation for Public Education, on Dropout Nation. Open up the exam schools to disadvantaged students, writes Holzman.

According to a recent series on the local New York City NBC television affiliate, “a dramatic race gap persists at the city’s most elite public high schools, a product of a single standardized entrance exam that privileges students who have been intensively primed and prepped through expensive private tutoring programs.”  The reporters go on to point out that “At Stuyvesant High School, widely viewed as the crown jewels of the top public high schools, just two percent of incoming ninth-graders are black, and 3.5 percent are Hispanic . . . In the general New York City public school population, the two groups comprise a total of 77 percent.”

Many Stuyvesant students — 115 of  843 in a recent year — came from private schools and the suburbs, Holzman writes. Those from public schools tested into Gifted and Talented programs in kindergarten. But children don’t have an equal chance at a gifted education: Some areas of the city test 7 percent of kindergarteners, while others test 70 percent.

New York City should abolish the very high-stakes test used to pick students for its selective high schools, Holzman argues.

. . . the school district should adopt a system used for college admission in various places around the country:  a quota, based on enrollment, from each middle and junior high school.  If a school enrolls, say, one percent of the city’s grade eight students, then one percent of the pool of students admitted to the specialized high schools should come from that school.  Each school should be permitted to set their own criteria for identifying those students, as who knows students better than their teachers?

Instead of paying tutors to help their kids cram for the test, parents might move their children to middle schools where they’d be in the top one percent, he speculates. These parents would pressure schools to improve.

Why not create more exam schools?

“We’ve been neglecting the education of high-ability youngsters,” write Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett, who’ve written a book on exam schools, on Ed Next.

States, districts, and individual schools, pressed by federal policies and metrics, have concentrated attention and resources on low-achieving and other “at-risk” youngsters, while paying scant heed to the fate of smart, eager pupils.

. . .  this negligence (coupled with our wariness of “elitism”) has produced a dearth of places and pursuits for able youngsters, both at the elementary and secondary levels.

. . . When access to rigorous programs is limited, or entry into them is handled simplistically (e.g., a child’s score on a single test), plenty of kids who might benefit don’t get drawn into the pipeline that leads to later success . . .

Educated, motivated parents will get their kids into top public schools or pay for private school, they write. Students whose parents don’t have the savvy to “work the system” lose out.

No pressure, no progress

Pressure to improve test scores is getting the blame for the cheating scandal in Atlanta (and Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. and elsewhere). But if there’s no pressure, there will be no progress, argues Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

Pressure doesn’t have to come from a high-stakes test, he writes. Pressure can mean Mom’s raised eyebrow.  In some countries, it’s a report from the school inspector.  But it’s got to come from somewhere.

School administrators and teachers who changed answers did something worse than cheating. They lost faith in the ability of their students to learn.

. . .  teachers and students, like all of us, must learn how to deal with some forms of pressure. Reducing stress in the either/or dynamic of public schools can lead to eliminating it altogether, which is bad. If we don’t have a chance to fail, no one will know that we need help. We won’t be able to improve.

Then we will be back where we were before, patting some kids on the head, deciding they weren’t up to anything tough and passing them on to the next grade until they are fit for nothing better than the unemployment line.

Those pat-on-the-head diplomas are another form of cheating.

Update: Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water, adds Justin Baeder.