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NCLB Outrages

Unaccountable accountability

William Mathis says, "Perhaps it is time we hold the federal and state accounters accountable." What an idea! Let's hope the time has come.

The outrage Mathis details shocks even me. I just take it for granted that things work better in Vermont. . . because nobody is screaming.

Look at how the Feds forced Vermont to do something that makes no sense (and makes the schools look bad). Nebraska refuses to fold this way. And other state ed people are also resisting.

by William Mathis

The droll headline marched across the newspapers of Vermont, "More Schools Failing." Few reporters went beyond the press release and list of schools "not making adequate yearly progress" to ask how the state (under federal direction) made these judgments. Perhaps it is time we hold the federal and state accounters accountable.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how many schools improved test scores, stayed about the same or how many actually got worse. Here's why:

Different tests with different content were used in different grades with different students. Further, some high schools were evaluated using one set of measures and others were evaluated using a different set. Elementary schools had yet a different set of measures.

Last fall, "progress" results were released on the basis of a second grade reading test, an attendance rate and a graduation rate. This summer, these results were compared to entirely different reading and math tests in grades three through eight plus a tenth grade test. Further, this summer, the graduation rate was computed in a different way which knowingly showed greater "failure" rates. Astonishingly, students that are still enrolled are now counted as drop-outs if they don't graduate in four years.

Nevertheless, the two very different data sets were compared. Proponents of test-based accountability say this kind of comparison is 70 percent error. We might as well say you were 5 feet, 8 inches last year; weighed 160 pounds this year and, therefore, you did not grow enough.

What the state did was put both sets of measures on a scale and compare them to each other. Unfortunately, things went south from there. The feds told Vermont that they had to use a more difficult scoring scale this year and the state had to try to adjust the scales to each other. Since there was no way to compare these very different sets of scores, a decision was made as to how many schools ought to fail at each level. By adjusting the scales, any real progress was washed out. The end result is that Vermonters have no earthly idea whether their schools got better or not (The state did try to say such comparisons should not be made, but buckled under federal pressure).

Alas, that's not all. As more schools test more children in more grade levels, the likelihood of groups of poor children, special education students and minority children becoming big enough to be counted increased. This year, three-fourths of the schools identified were designated as failing because of poor or disabled children not meeting standards. Thus, are the newly labeled schools marked simply because they had high populations of needy children? Is the "failing schools" label attached because of family conditions, disabilities or bad teaching? Our No Child Left Behind-based accountability system gives us no answer to these questions.

One answer is that regardless of how well the children and the schools perform, Commissioner Cate said that, eventually, all schools in the state will be identified as not meeting standards. This is for a state that is among the highest performing on any measure. (Full disclosure: The author is superintendent for two schools identified as not making adequate yearly progress).

Researchers agree that the result of this federal policy will be that virtually all schools in the nation will be declared "failing" regardless of how well they perform. The feds have further declared that such failing schools must use supplemental providers and vouchers and reorganize in such ways that public schools may be taken from the public. It is ironic that the federal government just released a report saying private schools do no better than public schools. All that will be taken away is democratic governance.

As Bruce Fuller has observed, the federal policy is like Jell-O. Hot, colorful and liquid when poured, it coagulates into a gelatinous glob. Commissioner Doug Christiansen in Nebraska has issued a call to arms. The Arizona state superintendent has brought suit because the federal government changed the rules on testing of English language learners. North and South Dakota have refused to count enrolled students as drop-outs just because they don't graduate in four years. Connecticut has brought suit in federal court for lack of funding.

In Vermont, the rules will change again next year and, if we go to a growth model, will change again the following year.

Accountability means that we report to the public on how well we do in an honest, transparent way. In Vermont, we have done this through town reports, town meetings, and ongoing supervision by local school boards. Certainly, democracy is sometimes a clumsy business. But just as certainly, it is vastly superior to a federally imposed unaccountable accountability system that misleads the public and misjudges the quality of our schools.

William J. Mathis is superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.

— William J. Mathis
Rutland Herald


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