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Opening the Black Box on Education: High-Stakes Accountability Examined

If Priscilla Aquino Garza’s future had hinged on a standardized test, she might never have attended either Harvard University or The University of Texas at Austin.

“I’m just not a good tester,” said Garza, a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, who works in education advocacy in Texas. “It’s a life-altering thought that standardized testing could have determined my future as a student.”

Priscilla Aquino GarzaTexas students must now pass about a dozen standardized tests to qualify to graduate high school, said Garza.

“That just seems excessive when students are still doing all of their normal coursework and taking all of their normal classes,” she said.

This issue of how to best prepare students is at the forefront of national and state debates. Global competitors continue to surpass the United States in areas of education and labor force measures. Growing high school drop out rates, among other striking statistics, bring the debate about how to objectively measure student achievement to the forefront.

Carolyn Heinrich is the director of the Center for Health and Social Policy and a renowned education policy scholar.

“Texas policymakers have contributed to some of the boldest reforms to education to date, including President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act and President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act," said Heinrich. "At the Center, we study the impact and implications of these major policies and take on the difficult questions about how they can be improved. We do this through our rigorous and innovative research and by directly engaging federal, state and local policymakers and stakeholders who are working on these very critical education issues.”

Since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was approved in 2001, high-stakes testing and accountability has grown from a Texas state policy into a national policy, says Cynthia Osborne, an LBJ School associate professor who studies education policy as the director of the school’s Project on Educator Effectiveness and Quality.Carolyn Heinrich

“No Child Left Behind adopted what we were already doing in Texas, which was to test all students and hold districts, principals and others accountable for students passing those exams,” said Osborne. “It was based on what I believe was President Bush’s strongly held belief that you have to have high expectations for all students.”

Heinrich is a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee that examined the impact of test-based accountability in education. She points out that the resources needed to help students pass standardized tests have not been commensurate with the demands NCLB has placed on schools.

“The Obama administration recognizes that No Child Left Behind isn’t working,” Osborne said. “Now they are allowing states to apply for waivers, as long as they agree to keep testing and use those tests to evaluate teachers.”

According to Garza, applying for a waiver wouldn’t take any funding or resources away from a state.

“But that support comes with a lot of auditing and red tape from the national government that many states would rather not have,” she said.

Texas is at the center of the debate over waivers, said Heinrich.

“The new Texas Education Agency commissioner recently announced that Texas will seek a waiver from NCLB requirements, but Texas is not stepping back from its dispute with the federal government about what role states versus the federal government should play in education policy,” she said.

Cynthia OsborneOne of the NCLB provisions that states could dispense with under waivers is the requirement to provide private tutoring for students in schools that repeatedly fail to make adequate yearly progress.

Heinrich’s research into these private services shows that despite good intentions on the part of the federal government, states and school districts, and despite billions of dollars expended nationwide, students do not receive enough hours of high-quality tutoring to substantially increase their learning and success in passing state tests.

“Districts that are coming under the waivers have the opportunity to do things differently,” said Heinrich. “They are coming out from under the constraints of arranging for these services the way the federal government says it must be done and are directly applying evidence from our research to improve these programs.”

According to Garza, the waiver system doesn’t address the fundamental problem with No Child Left Behind, and that is the tests themselves.

“The oldest question of education is: How do you measure success?” said Garza. “I don’t know that these tests are the answer. I think that they are part of the conversation but shouldn’t be the whole conversation.”

To provide a public forum to allow discussion about this critical issue, the LBJ School examined these and related issues at an education policy forum focused on high stakes accountability in Texas on Sept. 24. The goal of the event was to open dialogue with parents, educators and legislators on the future of education policy in Texas.

Related:

Why High-Cost Tutoring Programs are Great for Business, but Lousy for Students

Measuring Up: A State-wide Conversation on High-stakes Testing & Accountability

Texas Tribune Liveblog: Public & Higher Education

How do we fix standardized testing in Texas? - The Texas Observer, Sept. 25, 2012