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Guest Commentary: Kevin Kosar On Muddled AYP Fixes

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In the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Ann Hulbert wrote (Standardizing the Standards) that “With “high stakes” testing, N.C.L.B. introduces an incentive not to cheat, necessarily, but to manipulate. Signs are that states define proficiency down while schools ramp up narrow test prep.”

What’s the solution to this problem? “The National Assessment of Educational Progress could serve as a model for a test that judges students’ ability to apply their knowledge and thus discourages [sic] rote coaching. But recent experience … argues against making test results the sole trigger of federal sanctions.”

This is a bit of a muddle. The feds should create a new test for reasons unclear but the test results are not to be the “sole trigger” for accountability.

What other triggers might there be? Hulbert doesn’t say. Instead, she essays: “Instead, the data [from the new test] would give states and school districts reliable information on where progress is, and isn’t, happening across the country, to catalyze their own strategies to boost achievement. Rather than cramming to reach an unrealistic target by 2014, states could be more like the laboratories of curricular improvement the country needs. Agreeing on common goals for what kids should be learning can free up teachers to focus more productively on how they could be learning better.”

The problem with this proposal is obvious – it presupposes that states WANT to improve the learning of all students and that they haven’t because they lacked data that would tell them which children are learning. The plain facts indicate otherwise. First, states have been testing for decades – they know which schools are high performers and which aren’t. Second, the raison d’etre for the No Child Left Behind Act’s adequate yearly progress (AYP) provisions was that states over the past four decades states had taken billions of federal Title I dollars and failed to find ways to raise student learning.

Hulbert, then, misses the central policy question: if AYP-type accountability is problematic, then what form of accountability would be better? Going back to the pre-NCLB days of shoveling money to the states in hope that they would do the right thing is not the answer.

The choices seem twofold: (1) We fix AYP, perhaps changing it to require schools to lift less than 100% (70%?) of students to proficiency. This would stop good schools from being sanctioned and might tamp down on the gaming; or, (2) We abandon performance-based accountability and adopt something like the 100% solution promoted by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Governmental-bureaucratic accountability would be replaced with market-based accountability. The feds would voucherize its funding so that parents could then afford to choose their child’s school. Take your pick.

Mr. Kosar is the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005).

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