Grading Education

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A review of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right by Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder. Published by the Economic Policy Institute (Washington, DC.) & Teachers College Press (New York City), Winter 2009.

"Accountability" has been a hot topic for decades now, emphasized by an ever-growing consecutive list of presidents. Recall, for example the Goals 2000 program of President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) in collaboration with the nation’s governors and placed into law by a cooperative Congress. Not only none of its goals achieved, the Goals 2000 Act was itself repealed before the year 2000.

More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2002 led by a joint effort by President George W. Bush (2001-20009) and Sen. Edward Kennedy with progressive goals to be achieved by 2014. It is not only apparent these goals won’t be reached either, many of us predicted this outcome at the time NCLB was enacted.

This new volume not only rates NCLB to be "an utter failure," but indicates it would have been even if it had met its own standards because its policies "are (based exclusively on quantitative measures (test scores) of a narrow set of school outcomes (basic math and reading skills)" and it "has inaccurately identified good and bad schools…caused teachers to focus on some students at the expense of others, and created opportunities for educators to substitute gamesmanship for quality instruction."

Since it is impossible to review a lengthy book in 700 words, it is first to be noted that, if education accountability is of interest to you, this is a book of merit and, in addition to the main chapters it has some interesting appendices of such topics as "Schools as scapegoats" and "Teacher accounts of goal distortion."

Chapter 1 argues "that a successful accountability system must first define the outcome that schools and other institutions of youth development should achieve." As this implies, and the authors stress, accountability must involve more than just the schools. This will prove difficult at best, and perhaps impossible.

Chapter 2 reports on surveys they had conducted to see how the public and elected officials view values in eight broad areas, only four of which are academic. The others concern behaviors young adults should exhibit.

Chapters 3 and 4 describe how the test-based accountability systems that have been used ‘have not only failed to improve American education but have caused great harm." Chapter 4 in particular is critical of an assumption that has been difficult to comprehend from the beginning – that all children can achieve at a minimally acceptable level. By ignoring the normal range of student abilities NCLB raises expectations "that even the highest-scoring countries in the world don’t come close to realizing."

Chapter 5 indicates in greater detail "why we should not have been surprised that test-based accountability plans have corrupted education. They argue that any such accountability plan will corrupt any institution.

Chapter 6 takes a look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress as it has evolved since its establishment in the 1960s. They grant that NAEP has demonstrated some value but that value is limited because it does not indicate how such factors as child care centers, public health programs or after-school programs are impacting on students.

Chapter 7 takes a look at the evolution of school boards "and argues that they have lost sight of their obligation to hold schools accountable for outcomes defined by the public through democratic procedures."

This, of course, suggests that school boards ever had that obligation which is doubtful, not least of all because formal schooling was originally a very limited experience for most students. One hundred years ago only 6% of them went as far as high school. Even as late as World War II most students still weren’t high school graduates. And even today, some 30% are high school dropouts and some argue that an equal number who graduates do so with minimal levels of academic competence..

Finally, Chapter 8 provides the outlines of a desirable accountability system. This raises two broad issues – one, the details of the system, and, two, the likelihood of its implementation..

That may be the real roadblock.
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"…the terms that best describe the present system are monopoly, uniformity, inequity, and lack of accountability." p. 471, Margaret D. Tannenbaum, Concepts and Issues in School Choice, Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, Box 450, Lewiston, NY, 1995
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