The Education Trust has a proud and distinguished history. When the group got its start in the mid-1990s, achievement for poor and minority children was lagging, and the education policy community largely ignored their needs. Ed Trust changed all that with a single-minded focus on equity, hitched to the relatively new notion of school-level accountability.
By the late 1990s, achievement for poor, minority, and low-performing students started a meteoric rise, particularly in the states first to embrace accountability; by 2001, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind act, a law Ed Trust largely designed. And in the early 2000s, achievement continued to climb for the children who had been “left behind,” especially in the late-adopter states. (This history is unpacked skillfully by Mark Schneider in this Fordham Institute report.) Low-income, low-achieving, and minority children are now reading and doing math two to three grade levels higher than they were in the mid-1990s, and Ed Trust deserves a ton of credit for that incredible progress.
But we all know that this progress came with some serious unintended consequences: Teaching to the test, narrowing of the curriculum, and benign neglect for children at the middle and top of the performance spectrum. One can argue that those trade-offs were worth it, but it’s hard to dismiss their existence. (As Schneider shows, it’s also clear that the payoff from NCLB-style accountability was dissipating by the late 2000s.)
One of the worst repercussions, in my view, was that this approach to accountability was incredibly demoralizing to educators in high-poverty schools. Many felt that it set them up to fail, conflating their challenging demographics with low performance. As everybody knows, average test scores and proficiency rates are highly correlated with school poverty levels. Breaking that connection, or at least loosening it, is the goal of Ed Trust and many other reformers. But we can’t simply wish it away—which is why “closing the achievement gap” remains a powerful aspiration, but a terrible principle to embed, quite literally, in school accountability systems.
Most of us have learned this lesson over the past fifteen years, which is why we want accountability systems to stress student growth over proficiency rates. Yet Ed Trust, while acknowledging the importance of growth, remains wedded to accountability systems with gap-closing and proficiency rates at their center. That’s my read, anyway, of its new report lambasting three states for giving honors grades to schools even though “many of the schools that were given a gold star from their states aren't necessarily closing the achievement gap,” as Politics K-12 put it.
This is wrongheaded. The states have it right, and Ed Trust has it wrong. Take Florida. It was smart enough—a decade ago—to look at student growth over time, which is a much fairer way to judge schools. That’s because schools can’t help it if their students enter the classroom far below grade level. What schools can do is make sure their students make great progress from September to June. That’s what we should hold them accountable for. (Florida also found a race-neutral way to design its system, looking at growth rates for its lowest-performing students, most of whom happen to be poor and minority. An elegant solution, in my view.)
As far as I can tell, Ed Trust is not satisfied with strong subgroup growth if said growth doesn’t eliminate gaps in absolute performance. It bemoans the fact, for example, that “while schools that earn Celebration Eligible or Reward status under Minnesota’s accountability system demonstrate higher on-track rates for both white and African American students than schools identified for intervention, the difference in on-track rates for white and African American students among these recognized schools are still vast.” Dig into the details and it appears that African American students in those schools are making high growth, and white students are making high or medium growth, but more white students are “on track” because more of them are “on standard.” We should be surprised by this? When African Americans in Minnesota (as elsewhere) are significantly more likely than white students to be growing up in poverty, to be living in single-parent families, to be coming into school with all manner of disadvantages?
Let’s see how this looks in Ohio, a state where Fordham does on-the-ground work, including authorizing charter schools. Consider the Columbus Collegiate Academy, a “no excuses” school we sponsor, and by most measures one of the best high-poverty schools in the state.
It put up some of the most dramatic student gains in Ohio; among charters, it had the seventh-highest growth rate in the state. And for this, Ohio awarded it an A for student growth.
But its “proficiency index”—which looks at the percentage of students getting to proficient and above—is a lowly C. Or perhaps not so lowly—almost no high-poverty schools in the state broke into the B range, because the proficiency index is almost perfectly correlated to school poverty levels.
So is this school an A-school or a C-school? There’s no question in my mind—this is a fantastic school, maybe an A-plus, worthy of celebration and replication. But because its high-poverty, minority population has not closed the gap with affluent white kids from the suburbs, Ed Trust would likely give it a C. Now do you understand why educators feel so demoralized? Why they feel set up to fail?
When designing accountability systems, we need to find the sweet spot between defeatism and utopianism. In my view, that’s exactly what the states are trying to do. They deserve our praise, not our derision.