"A Mockery of Accountability"

In New York City, public schools receive annual report cards with a grade. Most of this grade is based on test scores. Miraculously, 84 percent of elementary and middle schools in NYC received an A this year, up from 38 percent last year.

Diane Ravitch points out in today’s Daily News that this bizarre situation should come as no surprise:

The problems with the report cards were apparent from the start. When the system was launched in 2007, testing experts warned that it relied too heavily on single-year changes in standardized test scores, which are subject to random error and therefore unreliable. But the Education Department did not listen.

But surprise or no, the grades are absurd, and they leave us with nothing. Ravitch continues:

The report card system makes a mockery of accountability. No one can be held accountable when almost everyone gets an A or B. No one can tell which schools are getting better or worse. Nor do parents get enough information to make good choices.

It would be one thing if they were not taken seriously and did not affect the lives of students, teachers, parents, and administrators. But they do. Schools with low grades are threatened with closure. Students want to go to a good school and get mixed messages about the schools they attend. Parents don’t know how to reconcile the grades with the ratings given by the state. Teachers may receive bonuses (or not) based on these grades. In the meantime, Chancellor Joel Klein has asserted that there is no problem with these grades, no problem with anything, in fact.

Accountability is in a bind. On the one hand, the DoE (in NYC and elsewhere) wants to appear successful–for PR, for elections, for funding, for renown, and what have you. We have something of the Creon syndrome, where leaders do not want to admit that they are wrong, lest they cede to the populace. On the other hand, the whole purpose of an accountability system (if it has integrity) is to help us see our problems and accomplishments clearly, not to trumpet success.

But to gain such insight, we have to know what we are trying to accomplish. With dumbed-down tests, vapid literacy programs, an overwhelming focus on test prep at the exclusion of essential subjects, and unreliable rating systems, we end up taking a yardstick to a void–and declaring miracles whenever we please.

Diana Senechal