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Can We Do School Improvement Without Tests?

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Tests and test scores have organized our thinking about education policy for decades.  Do we know how to do accountability and school improvement any other way?

We may soon find out.  Welcome to California's second year with local control finance and accountability, and letting a thousand flowers bloom.

California is in the middle of its second school year with our new K-12 finance system: the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that go with it.  In a forthcoming issue of the online journal Education Policy Analysis Archives, Charles Kerchner and I will present some things we learned during its first year, including ways the law radically restructures California's education policy.

Accountability is at the heart of this new law, and it was enacted at a time when most students in the state took annual California Standards Tests (CSTs).  In the first year of implementation, however, the state suspended CSTs, anticipating the arrival of new Common Core-related tests, so no one yet knows how test scores will figure into local accountability.

One important take-away from that experience: the law may offer glimpses of the Post-NCLB Era, and how hard it will be to build alternative approaches to accountability and school improvement in the absence of common tests and simple, agreed-upon scoring of students, teachers, schools and districts.

Will the Post-NCLB Era be a Post-Testing Era?  Not exactly.

Political conflict over tests is as old as testing itself.   Many lefties have always opposed them because they lead to narrowing of the curriculum, or because they simply document the inequality students bring to school with them.  Many righties have always opposed them because they mandate curriculum standards from above, or because they include objectionable material.

But populist opposition to testing has gone mainstream now.  Last fall's annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll (in two parts, available here and here) showed a majority of Americans now agree that "standardized tests are not helpful" to teachers and students.  As John Merrow and EdSource's Louis Freedberg have noted, public opposition to tests may also be dragging down support for the Common Core State Standards.  Freedburg: "So far, opposition to the Common Core has had the most significant fallout not on the standards themselves, but on the assessments that students will take to measure how well they and the schools they attend are doing."  Growing numbers of state legislatures and governors have come out in opposition to that testing and the shared curriculum they see tied to it.

Congress is struggling, too.  Education committees are trying yet again to craft a successor to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, this time under Republican leadership.  They're trying to create the latest update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which first passed in 1965.  So far, they've found it impossible to agree on how to write a new version of the law, and Education Week has reported that much of the haggling this year has been about tests and testing.

But standardized tests have been at the core of "standards-based education" approach that has dominated school reform politics since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983.   The familiar chain of ideas goes like this:

  • standards shape curriculum,
  • curriculum drives instruction,
  • instruction provides the content for assessments and tests,
  • assessments and test scores enable accountability,
  • accountability triggers interventions, and
  • interventions enable school improvement.

In edu-speak, this is the theory of action for standards-based education reform.  Tests and test scores are at the heart of it.

That's not going to go away.  Marguerite Roza and Robin Lake are right that the whole point of the ESEA is to target assistance to the most vulnerable students, and that we need valid and reliable assessments to know when those vulnerable students are being poorly served.  In the long run, tests will survive the populist revolt.

Likewise, it's clear that policy-makers are not ready to give up on the idea that school improvement requires accountability.  Even if we lose standardized tests and test scores, they want some way to assess students, teachers, schools, and districts.  They want assessments that can guide interventions and improvement.

But what happens to standards-based education politics and policy if testing becomes so controversial that the feds and the states can't stand to mandate them?  What if states, districts, and schools can't agree on what tests to use, who to test, and how to consider assessment systems not based on standardized tests?  If those things happen, it's hard to see how to sustain the consequences formerly attached to the tests.  It's hard to see what the standards-based approach to school reform will become.

Glimpses of The Brave New World

This is where California and the 2013 LCFF/LCAP law come in.  The law mandates that each school district in the state regularly conduct a broadly inclusive and participatory budget process for identifying local goals, plan how resources should be allocated to advance those goals, and then document those goals in a programmatic Local Control Accountability Plan.  In subsequent years, local stakeholders can then assess whether district budget allocations match the written plan and, if they don't like the allocations or the results, attempt to hold district decision-makers accountable.

As Kerchner and I have written in our EPAA piece, this new LCAP requirement ends the state's reliance on a school or district "Academic Performance Index" score based on standardized tests, and instead ushers in a new multiple-indicator accountability system.  It fundamentally changes the politics of finance and accountability, substituting local politics and grassroots agency for state-driven mandates and compliance reviews.

The law requires each district to identify specific goals and budget priorities in eight areas:

  1. Basic services like equipped classrooms, qualified teachers, and standards-aligned textbooks and curricular materials.
  2. Implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for all students, including English Learners (ELs).
  3. Parental Involvement
  4. Student Achievement as measured by tests, college and career readiness, English Learner reclassification to fluency, and several other named criteria.
  5. Student Engagement evident in rates of attendance and absenteeism, middle school and high school dropout, and graduation.
  6. School Climate evident in rates of suspension and expulsion, as well as other locally-identified measures.
  7. Access to a Broad Curriculum evident through student enrollment across grade levels and subject areas.
  8. Other Student Outcomes as identified locally, which may include locally chosen tests and assessments.

Charter schools must develop a similar document, though the law allows their governing boards to do so through internal deliberations rather than public participation.  Both districts and charter schools were required to develop their first LCAPs by July 1, 2014, and then every three years afterward, with annual updates.  School districts submit their LCAPs to their County Offices of Education for approval in order to win eligibility for their LCFF funding the following year.  Charter schools submit their LCAPs directly to the state Department of Education.

This is clearly a long, long way from annual standardized tests of reading and math.  How will schools and school districts assess their performance in these eight areas?  How will they report out?  What does accountability even look like in this context?  Educational leaders around the state are working frantically to figure that out.  This week, they talked openly about suspending the California High School Exit Exam, which has been a prerequisite to a diploma since 2006.  They have even begun working on new version of the Acadmic Performance Index that will draw on multiple indicators.

If we are entering a Post-NCLB Era, life is about to get very complicated.

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