I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Decade of Testing -- But Nothing's Changed

There are two things in eduction policy on which we should all agree:

- Poverty matters. The correlation between poverty and outcomes is indisputable, but that's only the beginning. We have more and more evidence of a causal link between economic disadvantage and student achievement. Children living in poverty are far less likely to have their developmental needs met, which affects their school work. There is even emerging evidence that poverty affects the development of the brain, and that the environmental stresses caused by poverty lead to hormonal changes that may affect academic outcomes.

- School funding matters. In the words of Bruce Baker:
On balance, it is safe to say that a sizeable and growing body of rigorous empirical literature validates that state school finance reforms can have substantive, positive effects on student outcomes, including reductions in outcome disparities or increases in overall outcome levels.[xi]
While some would like to put up a smokescreen and pretend that school funding is a secondary concern, the plain truth is that money does matter. You can't expect schools and teachers to be held accountable for their students' academic progress unless and until you provide those schools with the resources they need to realize that progress.

Now I understand that there are plenty of folks out there who will try to push back on these rather simple truths. But only the most intransigent won't admit that poverty doesn't have a profound affect on the lives of children, and that schools need adequate resources to do their jobs.

Are we all together on this? OK...

The latest argument for expanding our already expensive, intrusive, curriculum-narrowing testing regime is that somehow it is a civil right for children in disadvantage to take tests. Because without the vital data these tests provide, we'll never see the changes our society needs to make on behalf of children:
Our commitment to fair, unbiased, and accurate data collection and reporting resonates greatest in our work to improve education. The educational outcomes for the children we represent are unacceptable by almost every measurement. And we rely on the consistent, accurate, and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children. These data are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity. [emphasis mine]
That's from the Leadership Conference's statement on behalf of eleven civil rights groups calling for the continuing use of standardized tests. I'd urge you to read the response to this statement from the Network for Public Education, including a ink to an extended essay by Jesse Hagopian. But let me add my own thoughts:

As these civil rights groups are no doubt aware, we have now had over a decade of standardized, high-stakes tests, mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The testing provisions of NCLB were retained and enhanced by the Race To The Top grants that came out of the 2009 stimulus package. It's not like this is new stuff; it's the current status quo, and it's been around a good long while.

But what has this decade of data done for the advocates of "better lives and outcomes for our children"? How has this decade of higher-stakes testing improved either child poverty rates or school funding fairness -- which are both critically important for advancing the academic achievement of disadvantaged children?

Let's start with childhood poverty:

Data from the US Census Bureau. Even though we know that poverty deeply affects school outcomes, the child poverty rate has increased substantially since implementation of high-stakes, federally mandated standardized tests.

And what about school funding? Let's take a quick trip around to a few states:
  • New Jersey used to be a leader in funding equity; now the state is in retreat.
  • New York has, yet again, underfunded its own school funding formula, leaving its district billions of dollars behind in accumulated shortfalls.
  • Kansas continues to have a funding system that is "constitutionally inadequate."
  • Louisiana continues to underfund schools in contradiction to its own task force's recommendations.
  • Wisconsin and Alabama have seen enormous cuts to state aid for schools.
  • Washington still hasn't come up with the revenues needed to provide an adequate education for the state's students.
  • Illinois continues to implement an inequitable funding system.
  • "Stealth inequities" run through funding systems in Illinois, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Carolina.
  • Ohio has slashed state aid to schools
  • South Carolina maintains an unconstitutional, inadequate, and inequitable funding system.
Once again, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, at least 30 states are providing less money to their schools than they did before the recession. Overall per pupil spending on education is down for the second year in a row

Go to the School Funding Fairness Report Card* for a national perspective on all this. From the summary:
  • Most states have largely stagnant or declining funding levels, and vast disparities among states remain. In fourteen states, funding levels in 2011 were below 2007 levels, even without adjusting for inflation. There is over a $10,000 gap between the highest funded state (Wyoming) and the lowest (Idaho).
  • The majority of states have funding systems with "flat" or "regressive" funding distribution patterns that ignore the need for additional funding in high-poverty districts. Recent trends show an increase in the number of regressive states and a decline in the number of progressive states. For example, Utah and New Jersey, both of which previously were among the most progressive states, experienced a significant erosion of equity.
  • Most states experienced a decrease in overall revenue resulting in a declining financial base from which to fund schools; most states also further reduced effort by lowering the share of economic productivity dedicated to education. The largest reductions in effort were seen in Maine, Hawaii and Florida.
Let's recap:

- We know that childhood poverty and school funding have an enormous influence on the academic progress of children.

- The defenders of extensive standardized testing claim that we need these tests to improve the lives of children. However...

- Over the past decade, when the most extensive testing regime in American history was implemented, childhood poverty increased and school funding became even more inadequate and inequitable.

If the goal of all this testing was to create "better lives and outcomes for our children," there can be no doubt: it failed. Testing failed to reduce childhood poverty, and it failed to provide the resources schools need to educate children.

If civil rights groups need data to make the advocacy cases, there's a way to get that data without testing every child with a standardized instrument multiple times in every grade. Appropriate sampling techniques could give us all the data we need for research and advocacy and even accountability purposes.

But the fact that we have all the data we could possible need and things still haven't changed in America's schools suggests that testing isn't really the problem. With all due respect, I would suggest to these pro-testing civil rights organizations that their call for more tests is missing the larger point. Tests have their place, but they don't teach, they don't fund schools, and they don't lift kids out of poverty.

* The Report Card is authored by Bruce Baker (my advisor at Rutgers), along with Danielle Farrie and David Sciarra of the Education Law Center (who I have done work for). 


StateAidGuy said...

I agree with you, money matters, but.

1) where do you get the money?

Raise taxes?

In 1991 NJ redistributed state aid and raised taxes in order to send more money to its poorer and poorest districts. The result was an immense tax revolt in which hundreds of Democratic politicians were defeated, including the governor.

Is your solution just to raise taxes on rich people? Ok, but any plausible millionaire's tax still wouldn't be enough fully fund SFRA (at the uncapped level) and the last few NJ attempts to pass a "millionaire's tax" were to send more money to pensions.

2) when does the law of diminishing returns take effect?

Asbury Park spends about $30,000 per pupil, not counting pensions. Where are the results? Clearly what AP needs is reform, not more money.

Asbury Park's tax rate is 0.5270. That's really, really low for NJ. I am comfortable cutting Asbury Park's aid, redistributing it to needier non-Abbott districts, and letting AP increase its property taxes to pay more for its own schools.

StateAidGuy said...

Like I've said before, you are really unpersuasive about the benefits of the "parity plus" aid that is the aid threshold for the Abbotts and, to a lesser degree, SFRA.

Compare how low-resource non-Abbotts perform (aka, Carteret, Clifton, Belleville, etc) compared with Abbotts.

I don’t have the time to do a really thorough look, but I see no evidence that the Abbotts are doing better than demographically similar (or poorer) non-Abbotts.

Perth Amboy is 64% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $13,425 per student. Carteret is 63% FRL eligible and receives $7,261. Total spending in Perth Amboy is $15,759 per student, total spending in Carteret is $11,721.

Perth Amboy’s high school is at the 12th percentile academically.
Carteret’s high school is at the 33rd percentile academically.

- Passaic is 80% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $16,898. Prospect Park, a non-Abbott, is 75% FRL eligible and receives $9,372 per student. Total spending in Passaic is $16,944 per student. Total spending in Prospect Park is $12,140.

Prospect Park’s one school is at the 19th percentile. Passaic’s seven elementary schools are at the 28th, 11th, 20th, 10th, 27th, 19th, and 7th. This is not strong pro-Abbott evidence.

- Irvington is 69% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $16,395. Belleville is 52% FRL eligible and receives $5,394 per pupil. Total spending is $16,825 in Irvington. Total spending in Belleville is $10,868 per pupil.

Irvington HS is at the 5th percentile. Belleville’s is at the 27th.