For more than two decades, corporate reformers have campaigned for accountability in education, insisting schools are best run like corporations and students best served by high-stakes testing policies that dictate promotion to the next level. Simultaneously, private educational management and testing companies have profited to the tune of billions through the administration of schools and standards-based assessments at the K-12 level. Such efforts have transformed public education from its decentralized, 20th-century form into a test-dominated and increasingly privatized function.
With all of the time, energy and money spent on educational accountability, it’s only natural to want to account for the impact of the standards movement and what it has accomplished.
“We have a country that has put a major emphasis on testing for a very long time,” says Ann Cook, director of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The consortium is a coalition of 38 public, non-charter high schools in the state of New York, 36 of them in New York City. “And, I don’t think we have much to show for it.”
Unlike the vocal education reformers who have dominated the 21st-century narrative, some believe the solution to effectively educating public school children and measuring their progress — urban, poor and African-American students in particular — is much less corporate and expensive.
“We have an incredible model that already exists in New York City that everyone should be aware of,” says education activist and teacher Jesse Hagopian. An editor for the nonprofit publication “Rethinking Schools,” Hagopian contends Cook’s New York-based consortium presents a “model of assessment so effective” that “corporate reformers, charter school pushers and testing companies certainly won’t tell you about it. Because if people knew about its dramatic outcomes for students, especially those of color, they would demand the so-called accountability system we have today be overhauled.”
Since the mid-1990s, the consortium has significantly outperformed other New York City public schools while serving a more vulnerable population. Its students, in all demographic groups, graduate, attend college and stay in college at higher rates than their non-consortium counterparts. In addition, its teacher retention rates far exceed non-consortium schools.
Though operating under a state waiver enabling students to earn a diploma by passing just one of the state’s Regents graduation exams, the consortium’s system of assessment is far from lax. Consortium schools have documented how their approach exceeds New York State Regents standards through its requirement of demanding performance-based assessment tasks, or PBATs, for graduation. These PBATs subject students to a rigorous process where they must demonstrate superior skill in research and writing, analytic thinking, mathematical computation and problem-solving, reading comprehension, computer technology, scientific research, art appreciation and performance, service learning and career planning. The PBATs include both written and oral components further reviewed by outside experts from the collegiate and corporate world.
Cook clarifies her students are “regular kids from regular public high schools, not charters. They get the same amount of money everyone else gets, they don’t get anything special.” In fact, continues Cook, as a “group of schools, we have a more challenged population than New York City schools as a whole with more kids in poverty and more kids of color.” And they enter high school “scoring below the city average in math and english, and yet we graduate kids at a higher rate than the city schools.”
For Hagopian, such results epitomize the shortsighted nature of contemporary test-heavy educational policies. “Using a test score as the only measure of a student’s worth is highly problematic,” he says. “In schools across the nation with predominantly Black and brown youth, their system of education has been transformed into a test prep center where kids are subjected to drill and kill all day long to try and boost test scores. Aspects like inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration, imagination and all the things we actually value when you leave school are crowded out of the classroom in this effort to single-mindedly raise test scores.”
The contemporary focus on test scores is part of a standards-based reform movement sparked by the Reagan administration’s backing of “A Nation at Risk,” a 1983 presidential commission report on American education. This much-hyped document declared there to be a “crisis” in education in need of reform by business-minded experts more capable of producing quantifiable results for student performance than educators and parents. Accordingly, the touted cure was a corporatized educational approach employing high-stakes standardized testing to gauge both student achievement and educator performance while increasing accountability for all involved. Though critics have since used achievement data from this period to contend there was no economy-related crisis in education, the corporate campaign for reform nonetheless prevailed and high-stakes testing regimes proliferated. Or, as nationally acclaimed educator Deborah Meier wrote in her essay “Educating a Democracy” from the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review, “Whether the crisis was real or imagined, change was required.”
With the passage of No Child Left Behind into federal law in 2002, states were required to test children every year in third through eighth grade in math and reading and, initially, once in high school. Districts have since added to these state-mandated tests while also increasing the number of practice tests. The Council of the Great City Schools recently revealed that students are taking an average of 113 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12.
However, this corporate assessment movement has been accompanied by an increasingly massive and successful movement bent on stopping such excessive testing policies. A recent report produced by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) reveals, in 2016, public pressure, protests and boycotts prompted states and districts across the country to cut back testing volume. Fewer states now require high school exit exams and many have stopped linking teacher evaluations solely to test scores. Kansas reduced the number of test questions students must answer by 60% percent, Tennessee cut testing requirements by 30 percent and the Dallas school district eliminated one-third of its Assessments of Course Performance. In Georgia, a substantial number of “milestones” end-of-course exams in math, science and reading have been dropped.
“A growing part of this movement against corporate reform is saying we need more holistic measures of student learning that support students in fulfilling themselves and identifying problems in their community,” says Hagopian, noting the need for an educational system built “around solving those problems.”
Such holism is integral to the educational approach of the consortium schools. “They have to be able to defend their work like a Ph.D thesis,” Cook says. “So, if they write a paper in history for their performance assessment, they have to have a conversation with outside assessors who are not their teachers and be able to defend it.”
“What this does is it changes the teaching since kids are writing about things they really care about,” continues Cook, noting “kids are doing more in-depth work. In a test situation, it’s more of a survey type of thing.” But, this process promotes in-depth learning instead of mere coverage and “also means there’s a lot more discussion in the classroom.”
The implications of such proven and successful educational methods two decades into our national obsession with high-stakes testing go far beyond any New York City classroom.
“It has everything to do with democracy,” says Cook, insisting you want kids to be able to critically “think through what decisions people make and what implications those decisions have.
“We need an education system that empowers students to explore and find these things out while they are still in school.”