School Accountability Without Standardized Testing

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Q: Is it possible to ensure educational accountability without giving standardized tests?

 

A: Not only is it possible, it is necessary.

 

In fact, we will never have accountability while we continue giving standardized tests.

 

This is the irony of modern education policy.

 

High stakes testing is seen as the only tool that can ensure schools operate correctly when in reality it is the very thing that blocks true responsibility.

 

Pundits and policymakers cry crocodile tears as they draw up elaborate ways to punish teachers and students for low test scores. Meanwhile they ignore some of the most basic facts about how education works.

 

FACT: Students and teachers are not the only factors.

 

FACT: Students and teachers don’t decide how much funding their schools get.

 

FACT: Students and teachers don’t get to decide education policy.

 

FACT: An education system is made up of a complex interplay of several interconnected factors that include parents, the community, the economy, culture, media, and local, state and federal governments.

 

FACT: High stakes testing ensures that teachers and students are held accountable for the entire education system including the vast majority of factors beyond their control.

 

So let’s stop pretending that standardized tests hold schools accountable. They don’t. They just point the finger without offering anything to help.

 

True accountability would be about diagnosing problems so we can fix them, not trying to fire your way to the top. When you break your arm, the doctor doesn’t immediately suggest you chop it off. He sets the bone and puts it in a cast and sling so it can heal.

 

When it comes to true accountability, we need to look beyond the school at all the factors involved. We also need to look to the legislature, the taxpayers, parents, the community, the media, and all stake holders.

 

However, this does not mean there are no ways to assess if schools, superintendents, administrators, teachers, and students are doing a good job.

 

In fact, it’s not even difficult to achieve. And we don’t need a single standardized test to do it.

 

We need a two-pronged approach. We must assess student learning, but we also must assess the adequacy of school funding, where it’s going and where it needs to go.

 

These measures are most often ignored in accountability discussions. When it comes to adequate funding, we usually blame the poor for being unable to provide for their children. And since many states allocate education funding based largely on local property taxes, we have rich schools with oodles of cash and poor schools that are falling over. True accountability would ensure all students – both rich and poor – start from an equal playing field. When society neglects this, it is society that is failing, not poor children.

 

When it comes to how funding is spent, we either throw up our hands that there’s no way to evaluate school funding or we pretend that school directors will be transparent just because. Both are untrue.

 

I still believe that local control is the best way to ensure true accountability. When school directors are not elected but appointed– as they are in charter schools – there is no reason to spend wisely. In fact, the laws are set up to shield charter school boards from having to show the community how they are spending taxpayer money. And since most are set up for-profit, there is an incentive to reduce services for students while keeping the saving as profit for themselves and their shareholders.

 

When school boards are elected and are required to hold deliberations in public, accountability is built in. Voters decide who gets to make decisions and if those decisions made in the light of day are in the best interests of their children. Moreover, elected school directors who come from the community have an incentive to make that community in which they live the best it can be and to provide the best quality education they can.

 

This isn’t to say that elected school boards are perfect. They are made up of human beings and are therefore fallible. You don’t have to go far to find local school directors who try to deliberate important decisions in private without notifying the public, circumvent the bidding process, make backroom deals, etc.

 

But there are ways to hold them and the community accountable for providing a quality education.

 

California has come up with an ingenious plan.

 

For the second year, the Golden State has been engaged in a bold experiment. Policymakers have initiated a new K-12 finance system: the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that go with it.

 

Basically, California public schools use multiple-indicators to determine where funding needs to go and how to hold schools accountable for spending it wisely.

 

It’s not perfect. It certainly has some bugs in it, and I do NOT recommend we simply extend the program nationwide as is.

 

For instance, the program still uses standardized testing as one of many multiple measures of success. This is better than having testing be the sole measure or even the most important one. But – as you shall see – we can do better.

 

The law requires each district to identify specific goals and spending priorities in eight areas. I would modify them as follows:

  1. Basic services such as equipped classrooms, qualified teachers, textbooks and materials. It is essential to know if these needs are being met so we can budget accordingly. If funding is lacking, assessing the deficiency in this way helps make the argument for an increase of cash.

 

  1. Implementation of District Created Standards for all students, including English Learners (ELs). California specifically denotes Common Core standards here. I think that is a mistake. Accepting wholesale a set of unproven standards made by non-educators who have never been inside a district building or in front of a classroom is a recipe for disaster. Instead, teachers in each district should develop their own standards and then test whether they are achieving their goal. Many policymakers are in love with the idea of national standards but that’s like suggesting all restaurants must have some version of the McDonalds value menu. Standards should be locally developed to meet the needs of real students not idealized ones.

 

 

  1. Parental Involvement. This simply cannot be ignored. Schools need to know if parents are invested in the district, and if not, administrators and faculty need to work to find ways to bring them in. Schools can institute family game nights, community picnics, parent-teacher nights with food and babysitting services. No school can ever achieve greatness without parents. We must find ways to increase involvement where it is lacking and encourage increased involvement where it is present at all. We must work to make parents feel welcome and make them a part of the decision-making process for school activities and functions.

 

  1. Student Achievement as measured by district assessments, English Learner reclassification to fluency, and other criteria. California includes Common-core aligned standardized tests in this area. I think this is a mistake and that we can find better assessments here. I’ll return to this in a moment.

 

  1. Student Engagement determined by rates of attendance and absenteeism, dropout rates, and graduation. We must gauge how well students are buying in to what the school has to offer. And if it is lacking, we must take steps to improve it. Schools shouldn’t just provide a prepackaged product. They should actively engage students and provide classes and services suited to their needs. Student engagement is one way to determine if schools are successfully doing that.

 

 

  1. School Climate evident in rates of suspension and expulsion, as well as other locally-identified measures. Discipline is very important but must be conducted judiciously. It must be fair and not unduly harsh. It must serve the purpose of improving academic outcomes. Moreover, we need to make sure there are no racial or cultural biases at work – even if they are unconscious. We want to create an inviting atmosphere, not a stepping stone to the prison system.

 

  1. Access to a Broad Curriculum evident through student enrollment across grade levels and subject areas. We know high stakes testing narrows the curriculum. We must work to actively broaden the curriculum and offer students a wide range of classes to maximize their educational experience. This includes arts, music, foreign languages and extra curricular activities. If we don’t have the funds to make that happen, what better tool to help argue for an increase than a detailed account of what’s missing and why it’s important?

 

  1. Other Student Outcomes as identified locally, which may include locally chosen tests and assessments. This could include participation in AP exams, college courses, etc. No accountability system would be complete without an “Other” category. Districts should be free to customize to meet the needs of students, parents and the community.

 

Which brings us back to testing.

 

We’ve got to have it. There must be some way to assess student learning. But we needn’t resort to money-making corporate products.

 

Teachers have been creating tests since the beginning of time. No one ever thought there was anything wrong with that until giant corporations discovered they could make huge profits selling us their standardized assessments.

 

We need to trust teachers again to assess as they see fit. But we can do more than that. We can have district-wide assessments systems that are not standardized – that are personalized – yet comparable across the district.

 

Performance or portfolio-based assessments.

Schools around the country are incorporating direct demonstrations of student learning into their assessment programs. These include projects, individual and group presentations, reports, papers and portfolios of work collected over time. These provide much more accurate reflections of student learning than snapshot tests developed far from the classroom. Moreover, if properly coordinated by departments and administrators, these assessments are comparable across the district.

 

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is leading the way. It consists of 28 schools, including grades 6-12, throughout the state that rely on these teacher-created assessments to the exclusion of standardized tests.

 

And the results have been tremendous! These public schools have higher graduation rates and better college-retention rates, while serving a population similar to that of other urban schools. We say we’re looking for innovations that work. This is it!

 

Just imagine a school that used such an accountability system. It would have a plethora of data about what’s working, what isn’t working and what needs to be done to correct deficiencies.

 

We forget that accountability systems show our values. High stakes testing pretends that the only thing that matters is the results of a standardized test. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

 

A system like the one I’ve described would ensure every student receives a robust education that is assessed fairly. It would invigorate children, parents and the community. And when students graduate from such a school, they would be prepared for whatever comes next.

 

Moreover, there’s not a single standardized test necessary in the whole system!

 

Our policymakers need to start thinking along these lines. These aren’t pie in the sky suggestions. Most of these ideas already have been tested and proven effective.

 

We need to free our minds from a reliance on the testing industry. We need to think outside the bubble and free our children from corporate servitude as education policy – a system that ensures they won’t receive a quality education – all under the guise of “accountability.”

 

Can real accountability exist without standardized tests?

 

Yes. That’s the only way it can.

Five Ways Hillary Clinton is Running a Dirty, Underhanded, & Disingenuous Campaign

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Dirty politics is nothing new.

Negative campaign adds, spreading false rumors, jamming the other party’s telephones, sabotaging opponents, stealing an opponent’s debate playbook, staging fake riots even sabotaging peace talks to help an incumbent.

Historically, we’ve seen all this and more during presidential campaigns from politicians on both sides of the aisle.

But even with that said, the Hillary Clinton campaign is finding new and more unsavory ways to wage political warfare against her challenger Bernie Sanders.

The race for the 2016 Democratic nomination has been marked by some of the most underhanded and repulsive moves we’ve seen in years.

When the dust clears, Democrats will be asked to support the winner, but given the scorched Earth policy of Clinton, it may be very difficult to put the base back together if she eventually comes out on top.

Here are five ways the Clinton campaign has sunk to new lows in its race against Sanders:

1) Voter Suppression in New York

In numerous general elections across the nation, Republicans have gleefully passed voter ID laws they admit were designed to keep down Democratic votes.

However, in this year’s primary election, we may be seeing Democrats working to stop other Democrats from voting.

Consider this: Sanders has won seven of the last nine Democratic primaries. The two won by Clinton were marked by massive “voter irregularities.” And in the overwhelming majority of cases, these problems affected Bernie supporters and not Hillary devotees.

In New York this week, 126,000 people were mysteriously dropped from the voter roles in Brooklyn, where Bernie was born and raised. They were registered in October, but on election day they were gone.

Another 60,000 Brooklyn Democrats had their registrations mysteriously changed to Republican so they couldn’t cast a ballot for their native son. What’s more, these changes were made after the April 1 deadline for voters to make these modifications, themselves. Someone else had to alter registrations in secret without voters’ knowledge.

This fraud wasn’t limited to one Sanders stronghold. According to various reports, approximately 30% or more of the Democrats throughout the Empire State who went to vote found their registrations had been changed, making those Democrats (invariably Sanders supporters) ineligible to vote. Had these people been counted, the state would probably have gone Bernie.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer – both Hillary supporters – have each called for an investigation. But the results won’t come until after the election. By then, there will be nothing we can do about it.

Is this just a coincidence? Given the stakes at hand, could someone have specifically targeted these people?

Yes. Someone could. Read on.

2) The DNC is Taking Sides

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is supposed to be working to help both Clinton and Sanders coordinate their campaigns. The party is supposed to be impartial. It is not supposed to favor either candidate, but it clearly does.

It is staffed by Clinton supporters like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the party’s national chair and a former Clinton campaign manager. Moreover, the company hired by the DNC to collect campaign information for both parties, NPG Van, has its own ties to Clinton.

This is significant because NPG Van was shown in at least one instance to having exposed privileged campaign information to both sides.

Facts about who supports each candidate and where they live is kept in a database run by NGP Van. The data helps each side figure out phone banking schedules, where to effectively campaign, etc. So when the company experienced a brief “glitch,” it exposed all this information to both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns.

A Sanders staffer was fired for looking at Clinton’s data to determine the scope of the leak. However, the DNC and the Clinton campaign spun this so it looked like the Sanders campaign was stealing the information when the staffer knew perfectly well everything he was doing would be traceable back to him. The DNC even cut off the Sanders campaign from accessing its own files until Bernie took the party to court.

Let’s say the situation had been reversed. Let’s say Clinton staffers had accessed Sanders information about who supports him and where they live. What would they have done with the data? Who knows? But it would have given them the exact information necessary to pull off the voter suppression we saw in New York – which communities need to have “voter irregularities,” and which voters to disenfranchise in order to ensure a Clinton victory.

But if Clinton activists had accessed Sanders information, the DNC would have gone public about it just as the party did about the Sanders staffer, right?

Would they? Would a party that has shown such favor to one candidate, staffed in large part by supporters of that candidate, would it be entirely transparent and forthcoming about improprieties from that campaign? Maybe. Maybe not. But the fact that SOMEONE clearly had access to Sanders information and used it against his campaign in New York leaves us with many unanswered questions.

3) Voter Suppression in Arizona

Voters in Democratic districts of Arizona went to the polls to exercise their civic duty only to find lines literally miles long and wait times of several hours.

The most populous county in the state, Maricopa County, reduced polling locations from 200 during the last election to just 60 this year. That amounts to over 20,000 voters for every location.

The reason given was financial. The Republican administration was trying to save money.

But in retrospect two other explanations seem worthy of consideration. First, this may have been a dry run for the general election. The GOP may have been trying to gauge how well it was suppressing the vote in the highest democratic districts.

Or this may have been an attempt to hurt one specific candidate – Sanders – and help another – Clinton. Once again these “voter irregularities” disproportionately affected Sanders supporters more than Clinton advocates.

Hispanics and Latinos in the state leaned Sanders. They make up more than 40% of the population of Phoenix (30% state wide). Yet in these densely populated neighborhoods, there were few to no polling places open. Faced with such difficulties, many working class people didn’t have the time to wait up to 5 hours to cast a ballot – they had to get to work.

Why would Republicans help Clinton? In polls she is weaker against every GOP presidential candidate than Sanders. Moreover, even if she wins, she is much farther right than Bernie.

Add to that suspicious actions by the media. At roughly 8:30 pm, a little over an hour after polls closed, with less than one percent of precincts reporting, the Associated Press declared Hillary Clinton the winner.

In Democratic primaries delegates are awarded proportionally. It’s not winner take all. Delegates are awarded by the percent of the vote each candidate receives. If the race is really close delegates are split.

Prematurely declaring Hillary the winner while hundreds are still waiting to vote discourages Sanders supporters from staying in line and, thus, can reduce the number of delegates he receives.

The media is clearly biased in favor of Clinton, and she enjoys a cozy relationship with pundits and talking heads everywhere.

4) Hiring Social Media Trolls

On the Internet, Clinton supporters have been silencing dissent and lowering the conversation. A Super PAC headed by a longtime Clinton operative is actually spending $1 million to hire online trolls to go after Sanders’ supporters on social media.

Correct The Record (CTR) is operated by Clinton friend and new owner of Blue Nation Review David Brock. CTR just launched an initiative called “Barrier Breakers 2016” for the purpose of debating Sanders supporters on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms.

The “Barrier Breakers” also are tasked with publicly thanking Clinton’s superdelegates and fans for supporting her campaign. These paid trolls are professional communicators, coming from public relations and media backgrounds.

I may have come afoul of the group, myself. Until recently, I had been a member in good standing of the closed Facebook group Democrats Only. It was a place for fellow progressives to basically talk trash on conservatives and champion Democratic initiatives. However, in recent weeks it has become something else entirely. Posts started to appear that were nothing more than Clinton campaign press releases. For every pro-Bernie post, there were 99 pro-Clinton ones. Posts would appear calling Bernie and his supporters “assholes.” That’s how a site for Democrats talks about fellow Dems!?

And when I politely brought up these disparities, I was kicked out of the group!

This is not about convincing fellow progressives why Hillary is the best choice. It’s about silencing dissent and creating a false sense of Clinton’s inevitability.

5) Misappropriating Sexism

Clinton is clearly the most successful woman candidate in American history to date. She came close to getting the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 against Barack Obama. She has been a Senator and Secretary of State. If she is actually elected president, she will forever shatter the glass ceiling of the highest office in the land for women.

But that doesn’t mean that every criticism she receives is by definition sexist. Calling for her to release her paid speeches to Wall Street is not anti-woman. Demanding an accounting of her hawkish pro-war policies is not being a male chauvinist. Questioning her commitment to the black community given her support for the privatized prison industry is not a faux pas.

However, this is how the campaign, supporters and even the candidate, herself, talks. They call any male who oppose them a Bernie Bro – a loaded, nudge, nudge, wink, wink term implying that any male opposition to Clinton cannot be based on reason and logic but only on sexism.

On the one hand, this is politics as usual. The Clinton campaign is using the same coded language Hillary has always been so adept at – she knew the term “super predator” was a racist dog whistle.

On the other, this misappropriation hurts women everywhere. It devalues the concept of sexism. It cheapens it.

If simple opposition to a female candidate is sexism, then when real sexism rears its ugly head, we’ll be less apt to take it as seriously as we should. The fact that women make only 79 cents an hour for every dollar earned by men is sexism. The fact that women’s healthcare is under attack and so much harder to access than men’s is sexism. The fact that toy companies limit or refuse to market female characters that aren’t overtly “girly” is sexism.

Asking Clinton to explain her record is not.


When this election cycle began, I considered myself a strong Democrat.

No matter who won the primaries – Clinton or Sanders – I was pretty certain I’d support that candidate in the 2016 general election for President.

Now I’m not so sure.

Scaremongers say it may come down to deciding between Clinton or Trump. That’s not much of a choice: one candidate is a member of the 1% and the other is bought and paid for by the 1%.

What’s the difference?

If the Clinton campaign continues to disenfranchise voters, receive an unfair advantage from party leaders, silence dissent and misappropriate sexism, I may end up casting a write-in for Sanders or voting for the Green candidate Dr. Jill Stein.

Either way, I won’t be bullied into giving my vote to a candidate that’s done nothing to deserve it and has worked to make sure people like me often don’t get the chance to vote at all.