Much has been said about whether the conclusions of A Nation at Risk were akin to a manufactured crisis. From the extrapolation of unadjusted SAT scores used to illustrate declining student achievement over the 20-year period before the report; to ignoring NAEP trend scores in math during the same time period, which reflected a modest increase in achievement for both black and white youths and a narrowing of the achievement gap; to erroneously connecting a 15-year decline in industrial productivity to a decline in educational achievement.
What is indisputable is that the report prompted an era of school reform that has endured for 30 years. This era responded to the narrative of a failing education system, with an increase in standards and accountability reforms aimed at raising student outcomes. However, myriad reforms of this this type have ignored the wider process of schooling, while both narrowing and complicating the definitions of achievement.
For example, 12 years after the implementation of No Child Left Behind, most state proficiency standards used to measure annual yearly progress are at or below the National Assessment of Education Progress definition of basic performance.
The latest NAEP data note data show that, in 4th grade reading, standards for proficiency in 35 of 50 states, are set below the basic performance standard on NAEP. Intrigued by this persistent mismatch, several researchers have found wide disparities between state and NAEP achievement results, in cases where states show increased achievement even as their NAEP scores remain flat.
The National Center for Education Statistics warns that NAEP achievement levels and standards are no more valid than individual state assessments. However, the standards-and-achievement mismatch between state and national assessments, raises the question of whether the standards and accountability regime has resulted not only in an incentive for states to lower basic proficiency cut-offs, but also a narrowing of what is defined as achievement.
The impact of standards and accountability reforms that have evolved since A Nation at Risk will have long-lasting effects. Yet, current attempts by policymakers to mitigate the continued impact have been sluggish. The Obama administration's inability to broker the political will needed to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has resulted in a piecemeal vision for school reform. The new agenda is led by a haphazard dismantling of NCLB requirements, driven by waiver requests. The waivers afford states flexibility in meeting NCLB tenets, in exchange for advancing the administration's new priorities (all but two states have filed for waivers).
Of foremost importance is the requirement of new teacher and principal evaluation and effectiveness systems that must include a proportion of student growth in the evaluation metric. Some states have proposed linking up to 50 percent of their teacher evaluations to student achievement growth. However, absent a nationwide effort to create new assessments that provide both reliable measures of student achievement and are also simultaneously validated to measure teacher effectiveness (no such test exists), the new school reform agenda is raising the stakes on our standardized test dependence.
Essentially, the administration is wagering with our students' futures, doubling down on flawed metrics whose efficacy in measuring student achievement is questionable, while also ignoring the advice of psychometricians who have continually warned that student assessments should not be used to measure teacher effectiveness.
Stemming this tide is the responsibility of policymakers, researchers, and professionals in schools. Policymakers are easily seduced by reform proposals that tout increased student outcomes, without first considering the process variables—from pedagogy, to leadership and governance, to capacity-building—that are needed to successfully implement, support, and sustain effective school reforms.
At the same time, researchers must dig deeper in collecting new data, beyond basic student and teacher characteristics, that could explain more of the variance that influences student achievement, from school-level instructional conditions to teacher induction to school culture and ethos to community support and school leadership. Finally, teachers need to proactively defend their profession and resist efforts by alternative certification organizations to minimize their practice to discreet skills that diminish teaching to a vocation and ignore wider foundations of theory and practice that inform teaching.
Luis A. Huerta is an associate professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research and scholarship focus on school choice reforms and school finance policy. He currently serves as a co-editor of the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.