Failing the Accountability Test
DALLAS -- When a teacher gives students a test and some of them cheat, the teacher punishes the offenders. She doesn't stop giving tests altogether.
It's a simple principle. And one that is not any less applicable when the cheating is being done not by individual students, but by entire schools.
Consider the recent disclosures by school districts in Houston and New York that officials had underreported dropout rates by excluding students whom the officials claimed had been "pushed out" of school.
Or the claim by the Rev. Raymond Bryant of Dallas, who told the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News that, in a predominantly black school his African-American congregation had "adopted" as mentors, underachieving students had an odd habit of taking field trips on test days.
Or the fact that officials in school districts across America routinely rely on administrative sleight of hand such as home study, independent study and alternative schools to warehouse at-risk students without actually having to teach them or test them.
That's cheating. These are organized attempts to manipulate statistics, duck accountability and hide the fact that some students aren't learning. Actually, what they're really trying to hide is the fact that some schools aren't teaching. School officials have never been eager to admit this. But as state legislatures and now the federal government pass laws demanding greater accountability from our schools, many of those officials are downright fearful of the consequences of having their schools labeled low-performing.
The shame of it is that these shenanigans, and others like them, are tolerated by many of the same people who bill themselves as advocates for public education.
The list includes Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard, who recently was quoted in The New York Times offering his own explanation for the phenomenon of schools underreporting dropout rates. Orfield, an outspoken critic of the No Child Left Behind Act, couldn't resist heaping blame on the law and its emphasis on so-called high-stakes testing.
No Child Left Behind threatens federal takeover of schools whose students underperform. There are similar stabs at accountability sprouting up at the local level, including Denver's plan to tie teacher salaries to how their students score on tests.
From the point of view of the education reform crowd, these are worthwhile attempts to pressure schools to deliver a better return for the enormous annual investment that taxpayers make in public education.
But to people such as Orfield, the obsession with testing is only making things worse.
"You create an incentive for schools to make their test scores rise by pushing out students with low scores," Orfield told the Times. "They flunk them, or they ask them to transfer, and then don't report them as dropouts."
I'm tired of excuses. Americans have a right to expect that those who work in the public schools will bring their best game to work every day. They have a right to expect that teachers will rid themselves and their work environment of low expectations and that they will think every student is capable of accomplishing great things.
The problem isn't the No Child Left Behind Act or the emphasis on testing or the push for more accountability. The problem is how those individuals who work in the public schools are responding.
Navarrette is a Dallas Morning News columnist. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Ruben Navarrette, Dallas Morning News
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