The Accountability Dominoes

In the era of standardized tests, ‘better’ always seems to mean ‘more’–and that affects every phase of education. A look at the battle surrounding assessment.


Cody Janoff isn’t stupid; he just stinks at tests. He’s that kid—you know the one: bright, social, verbal, yet can’t line up the digits on a math problem. But Cody, a freshman at Cimarron-Memorial High School, has a secret weapon: his stepmom, Amy, a special-education teacher in the Clark County School District with a master’s degree in her field.

Since fifth grade, when Cody’s grades in math and reading started to nosedive, Amy has been pulling every trick out of her professional bag: consulting with teachers to see what was happening in class; posting sticky notes with hints and shortcuts on the wall by the table where Cody does his homework; putting him on the computer with educational games; sitting with him for two hours a night while he struggles through assignments.

All to no avail. As Cody progressed through fifth, sixth and seventh grades, his Criterion Referenced Test, or CRT, scores went down, down, down. His eighth-grade reading teacher at Ernest Becker Middle School reported that he was doing fine in class; his math teacher went above and beyond the call of duty, spending extra time with Cody both inside and outside class to help him grasp the concepts. When their son would score a “D” on a quiz, Amy and Mike, Cody’s dad, would post it on the fridge as a sign of success. They’re awaiting his eighth-grade CRT report with hope … and trepidation.

“He doesn’t test well,” Amy says with a sigh. “And he hates it so much.”

There’s a lot to hate. CRTs are given each spring in two-hour blocks, three days a week, for two weeks—one example of American schools’ unique, fill-in-the-bubble reality. Such standardized tests are part of a snowball that started several decades ago with the simple idea of holding schools accountable for the funding they receive, and has since bowled down the slopes of the U.S. educational system, picking up proponents from government and test-publishing companies, and crushing many good intentions in its path. Today, buzzwords such as “accountability,” “assessment,” “measurement” and “outcomes” are hallmarks of the standardized-test movement; its flag-bearers are called “reformers.” They believe in the power of data to improve instruction.

In Clark County, this data is gathered several times during the school year. Third-through-eighth graders have the annual, state-mandated CRTs, which are being replaced by new tests (more on that later), and thrice yearly county-required assessments. Tenth-through-12th graders have high school proficiency exams, which determine whether they graduate, and career and college readiness assessments, such as the ACT and SAT. There are also several tests tailored specifically to English Language Learners, special-education and other categories of students.

This is the litany of trials that Cody Janoff and his 300,000 or so peers in the school district face each year. The question is: What good, if any, is it all doing them?

High stakes

Though public school districts across the nation have instituted more and more standardized tests over the last three decades, performance on them hasn’t improved. In 2006, at the height of No Child Left Behind, U.S. reading test scores reached their lowest point in 31 years. And Education Week’s most recent Quality Counts study, which scores educational outcomes and progress in 50 states and the District of Columbia, ranks Nevada 48th.

So, how did the test craze begin? The origins of standardized testing can be traced back to 1965 and the establishment of the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which offered federal funds to local schools on the condition that the schools provide proof—in the form of test scores—that the money was well spent. Standardized tests on core academic subjects gained momentum in the ’80s and ’90s as America’s rankings in international assessments tumbled and political leaders such as President Ronald Reagan latched onto education as a necessary element in global competitiveness. This push culminated under President George W. Bush in 2002 with No Child Left Behind, which required more testing, with more strings attached, than ever before.

What’s at stake? Everything, really. In fact, when Cody’s eighth-grade CRT scores are released this month, many people outside the Janoff household will be anxious to see them:

His teachers, who, beginning in 2014-15 will have half their professional evaluations tied to their students’ standardized test results.

Amy Smith, Cody’s principal at Becker Middle School, who will use the results to evaluate her teachers, and receive a certain number of stars—out of a possible five—according to the Nevada School Performance Framework.

Mike Barton, the chief student achievement officer for the Clark County School District, which allocates funding and other resources based on how many stars each school gets.

Pat Skorkowsky, the recently appointed district superintendent, who is accountable to the Nevada Department of Education—as well as parents and other taxpayers—for the methods and strategies he adopts.

So, yes, the stakes in “high-stakes testing” are indeed high. In some respects, there’s good reason for that. A Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation study, whose results were released earlier this year, suggests that students’ test scores can help identify effective teachers. And, on the surface, the goal of increased accountability seems reasonable enough. Ask most people whether it’s fair and they’ll say, “Well, I have to live up to my boss’ expectations at my job, or I’ll face consequences. Why should teachers and school districts be any different?”

Indeed, No Child Left Behind was a corporate-model response to the old status quo, which saw American students underperforming relative to their international counterparts. Although federal funding was already tied to test results, Bush’s reforms upped the ante, instituting higher standards (its ultimate goal was 100 percent proficiency in reading and math among all U.S. students by 2014) and stronger accountability, with consequences for poor performance ranging from administrative intervention to staff firings and even school closures. The trouble is, this model failed. In January 2012, on No Child’s 10th anniversary, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing released a report indicating that the act didn’t meet its own goals. In fact, students made greater gains before the law was enacted.

Rather than do a 180, however, the reformers knuckled down. The problem, they insisted, wasn’t accountability itself; it was philosophical flaws in No Child, which wasn’t strict enough. Just ask American Indian Public Charter Schools founder Ben Chavis, who spoke at a Nevada Policy Research Institute luncheon at the Las Vegas Country Club in July. Chavis says there’s an intrinsic perversion to the system: Schools get paid to fail. Low performers are allocated additional money based on the logic that they need extra help, and Title 1 funds give a boost to schools with high numbers of students from low-income families, in order to help level the playing field between them and students who don’t have to contend with issues such as hunger and illiteracy. Reformers such as Chavis see this as an incentive for low performance—the implication being that administrators and teachers intentionally hamper student performance in order to keep the dollars rolling in.

He got rid of computers, second-language classes and other things he considered perks, and credits this no-nonsense approach for his school’s high-ranking performance on standardized tests. “When a kid passes an AP course, we pay them $150,” he says. “We pay kids $50 for perfect attendance, and teachers $500. The school district thought we were cheating.”

Chavis’ ideological opposites also believe the current system fosters corruption, but of a different kind. Attaching too many rewards to success, they believe, can encourage unethical behavior, too. As evidence, they point to the Atlanta cheating scandal—which led to grand jury indictments for 35 educators, including the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, who were accused of changing students’ test answers—and to controversial reformer Michelle Rhee’s short tenure at the helm of Washington, D.C.’s public schools.

“When testing is used for rewards and punishments, it corrupts education,” says Diane Ravitch, the New York University education professor who was assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush and a leader in the standards movement, but has since become the reformists’ best-known critic. “Too much time devoted to testing and test prep means less time for the arts, physical education, civics, history, science, foreign languages. In short, when testing becomes too important, it destroys real education. I don’t know of any great private school—like the one that Bill Gates’ children attend, or the one where President Obama sends his daughters, or the one that Michelle Rhee attended—that uses any standardized test.”

The most frequently heard criticism is the system’s propensity to foster teaching to the test. “High-stakes exams are a setup for schools to forgo real learning in favor of the one thing the system truly values: producing an acceptable numerical appearance of learning,” writes Peter Henry, an English teacher, in his article in the Minnesota English Journal called “The Case Against Standardized Testing.”

The worst part may be that all the time and effort and money put toward reform have led not to better test scores, but to general malaise among everyone concerned.

Reforming the reforms

Against this backdrop, the National Governors Association hatched what it believes is a better plan: Rather than comparing states to each other based on a jumble of separate tests and systems, we should be able to measure all the United States, as a whole, against other countries. To make that happen, we’d need one set of standards for the entire nation.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was born. Embracing it, the federal government offered waivers to No Child Left Behind for states that adopted the Common Core. These states will still be held accountable for funding, but according to the new standard. Nevada is one of 40 states to have received the waiver.

Here’s the problem: Clark County students were already performing badly on CRTs. By all accounts, Common Core will be more difficult. By setting the bar even higher, did the governors fall into exactly the same reformist trap as President Bush?

More importantly, teachers wonder: Are we setting our students—and ourselves—up for another failure? That’s a concern shared by many in the Clark County School District, such as Elizabeth Meinhold, an English teacher at Western High School, who says she gets students in ninth-grade English who can’t write a coherent paragraph, much less a one-page essay comparing the philosophies of Marcus Aurelius and John Donne (a sample Common Core question, according to one parent-teacher association official). Meinhold loves teaching and believes in her students, but she’s seen firsthand how standardized testing can discourage them from applying themselves academically.

She gives an example from last year, when she taught the John Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men to a group of freshmen, some of whom were reading at first- and second-grade levels when they arrived in her class. By providing context, such as background on the Depression, migrant workers and life in the 1930s, she got most students to connect with the story. The majority—including some special-education students—aced her final exam, she says. By contrast, standardized tests provide long, complex passages with little or no context. Kids who are struggling to read, she says, may feel overwhelmed and shut down. According to Meinhold’s philosophy, such kids pass by showing up, working hard, having a good attitude and making progress; according to the state’s, which considers none of these abstract factors, they fail.

Meinhold believes teachers should be well-trained and overseen, then entrusted with the passage or failure of their own students. This isn’t such an outrageous suggestion, according to Ravitch. “Finland is widely acknowledged as a very successful education system,” she says. “Its teachers never give standardized tests; they write their own, because they know their students best.”

Thelma Davis, principal of Robert Lunt Elementary School on the east side of Las Vegas, wouldn’t go that far. She scours her CRT data looking for ways to make improvements. Lunt has been a two-star school for four years running, which means it’s subject to restructuring, intensive oversight by the school district designed to bring it up to speed. Schools that continue to perform at this level can be subject to personnel changes under current guidelines.

But Davis is determined to succeed—and she believes her teachers are, too. As proof of her school’s potential, she cites a lesson-study initiative funded for the past two years through a grant she applied for on her own. It allowed math teachers to collaborate on best practices, observe one another in the classroom and regroup for feedback and support. Over that time, math test scores went up, Davis says. The program has now ended, along with the grant.

Does she get discouraged? “A little bit. Last year, especially, because we’ve made growth, but we’re still two stars. I’m not sure what the issue is … We love our kids, we really do. But we’ve got to believe they can be something that maybe we are thinking they’re not.”

Doubling down on assessment

CCSD Assistant Superintendent Leslie Arnold and Chief Student Achievement Officer Mike Barton are optimistic about education in Southern Nevada—and it’s their job to be. While Arnold is the district’s data guru, Barton handles accountability. They’re overseeing sweeping changes to the district’s assessment system that began with pilot projects last year and will continue over the next few years. It has several elements:

For grades 3-8, the state’s high-stakes test is changing from the CRT to one provided by Smarter Balanced, a consortium of Common Core states that is developing assessments to go with the new standards. These are interactive, computer-based tests that self-modify based on how a student is doing—correct answers lead to harder questions; wrong answers to easier questions. They also incorporate essays and other non-multiple-choice components. The idea, Arnold says, is to measure improvement as well as pure performance, and keep kids from getting discouraged by testing them at their actual level, rather than one over their heads.

A new county-driven assessment will be given three times over the school year. Provided by test designer Discovery Education, a subsidiary of international media conglomerate Discovery Communications, this test is meant to give teachers and administrators a chance to see how their students are progressing over time in preparation for the high-stakes test near the end of the year.

Beginning in 2014, high school students will have new graduation requirements, including four end-of-course exams (two in language arts and two in math) and, for juniors, a college and career-readiness assessment (this won’t determine graduation, but it isn’t optional). Likely vendors for the readiness assessment include ACT, SAT, Smarter Balanced and Pearson VUE, an international test-development corporation.

The district is implementing a program that will count standardized-test results as 50 percent (up from zero percent) of teacher evaluations. Another 35 percent will come from administrators’ observations of teachers, and the remaining 15 percent will be “professional responsibilities,” which has yet to be specified.

Barton dreams of using the new evaluations to elevate each and every teacher to the level of the great (and fictional) John Keating, the character played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets’ Society. (One rub in this scenario is that the district can’t fire un-Keatinglike teachers outright, due to its arrangement with the Clark County Education Association.) Arnold’s vision, meanwhile, is to make data more readily accessible to her “customers,” CCSD educators and the media. She sees her department as the Apple of education. “We have to push a product they didn’t even know they wanted,” she says. And then, because it’s so good, they’ll engage with her to make it even better.

It remains to be seen how teachers will greet these efforts. One thing is certain: The number of standardized tests in the district is going up. Again. Teachers will undoubtedly see that as further chipping away at their classroom autonomy and creativity.

In a compelling essay on this subject, retired award-winning Ohio history teacher David Patten makes the case for the end of high-stakes testing by comparing his pre-standardized test teaching to his post-standardized test teaching. Patten says he has no problem helping students to pass exams; on the contrary, his classes were high-performing—but at what cost? He had to eliminate the reading of novels, interactive demonstrations and other meaningful projects from his curriculum to make time for standardized-test preparation. “I never feared proficiency testing,” Patten writes. “Instead, I loathed it.”

“I’m learning to teach to the test,” says one CCSD teacher, who would only comment anonymously, echoing Patten. “I’m against it, even though I’m getting really good at it.”

An evolving battle

In an ironic twist, the accountability movement itself offers scant evidence of its effectiveness. Minnesota English teacher Peter Henry emphatically stresses this: “There are no large-scale, peer-reviewed academic studies that prove, or even suggest, that a high-stakes, standardized-testing educational program improves learning, skill-development or achievement for students.”

Many people see another red flag for standardized testing in the involvement of corporate interests, such as Discovery and Pearson. Millions of public dollars go to the developers of tests, which, in turn, decide how future dollars are allocated. Critics wonder if the system isn’t rigged to be self-fulfilling.

There is some evidence a backlash may be under way. Educators have formed the Badass Teachers Association with the express purpose of refusing “to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.” Its Nevada Facebook group has 61 members.

Short of an education revolution, though, the Clark County School District will keep rolling with its plan to pursue reform through intensified testing regimes. In a few years, at Cimarron-Memorial High School, Cody Janoff will face the nerve-wracking prospect of receiving his high-school diploma (or not) based on a standardized test. His teachers, who will have learned to adapt to yet another set of expectations (or not) will be judged based partially on his performance—as will his school’s principal and the district’s administrators.

For all of this, will Cody Janoff be a better person than if he had gone to some other kind of school—or not gone at all? In truth, it’s not a choice. School attendance isn’t optional, and public school is the only option for those who can’t afford private alternatives. It’s up to parents, students, taxpayers and voters to decide whether the system they’re getting is good for their kids. And if it’s not, it’s theirs to change.

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