State report cards should get an F
October was school-quality judgment month. The Ohio Department of Education issued its annual report cards that assign school districts single letter grades from A to F. This system uses performance on standardized tests as a proxy for school quality. The stakes are high when tests are used for making judgments like this.
Throw away your report card. It doesn’t matter if you got an A or an F! It doesn’t tell you enough about what matters, and it was built on a rocky foundation that ignores warnings about the inappropriate uses of standardized tests. When the reputation of a school or a community is on the line, or a child’s future is going to be affected, judgments should be based on legitimate methods. High-stakes testing does not meet this standard.
Starting with the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, lawmakers sold accountability based on testing as the way to raise achievement for all children and improve education quality. Tests would motivate educators to do a better job and children to work harder. School quality would improve without investing in school capacity or addressing income inequality and other variables affecting achievement. Ohio lawmakers continue this approach and have piled on multiple consequences over the years. They deserve an F for failure to use common sense, protect children and invest in education, and for endorsing a deeply unreliable measurement system.
In his 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, testing expert Daniel Koretz discusses issues that make judgements about children or school quality based on test results inappropriate. While tests are useful for monitoring achievement and comparing groups of children, individual scores can change from one day to the next. While tests can estimate what students know, they cannot determine why they know it. In-school and out-of-school factors affect achievement, so tests, in their imprecision, do not provide a basis for decision-making and do not accurately measure school quality.
Koretz also notes that tests motivate educators to focus on test scores, which can be raised without improving learning, often at the expense of curriculum and quality instruction; and that test-based accountability focuses on what can most easily be measured. That is, with testing, quality is defined solely by measurable academic outcomes. Tests can’t measure the quality of relationships, the learning environment, social and emotional development, the breadth of curriculum and extracurricular offerings, the presence of creativity and levels of social awareness, and whether schools are preparing students to become thoughtful citizens. These purposes get lost.
A bad grade can be devastating. No one in our community liked receiving a D, something that each of us remembers from our own education as a signifier of intellectual weakness and personal and parental failure. If accepted as a credible measure of quality, a bad report card is extremely costly in terms of public confidence in public education and the desirability of a community. Test scores are used to judge schools, hold students back or prevent them from graduating, evaluate teachers, and take governance away from local school boards. The consequences are costly.
Architects of accountability sold it as a panacea for guaranteeing high-quality public education, and they built a system with the wrong materials—standardized tests and report cards. You can’t create a high-quality system of public schools with a test. In fact, this approach undermines quality.
It’s time to insist that lawmakers create education policies that legitimately contribute to education quality. The place to start is to follow the advice Ohio State Board of Education member Lisa Woods offered at a League of Women Voters-sponsored forum in August: Scrap the report card and start over!
Susie Kaeser has been a public school advocate and resident of Cleveland Heights for 40 years. She is co-convener of the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the retired director of Reaching Heights.