by Robert Pondiscio
May 4th, 2009

Former Ed Secy Margaret Spellings is the latest boldface name in the edusphere to say last week’s NAEP numbers show that NCLB is working.  Over at Common Core, Diane Ravitch takes a close look at the numbers and says, er…not so fast.  Her takeaway:

First, our students are making gains, though not among 17-year-olds. Second, the gains they have made since NCLB are smaller than the gains they made in the years preceding NCLB. Third, even when they are significant, the gains are small. Fourth, the Long Term Trend data are not a resounding endorsement of NCLB. If anything, the slowing of the rate of progress suggests that NCLB is not a powerful instrument to improve student performance.

The different takes on the NAEP tells Checker Finn that what we really need is an independent education-achievement audit agency “to sort out the claims and counterclaims about student performance and school achievement.” 

Advocates always do this sort of thing—reaching for whichever data they think make the most convincing case for their accomplishments, exertions and assertions (and, of course, making or implying causations that no reputable scientist would accept). This will continue. And usually the advocates get away with it because anybody who disputes their claims is also seen as having his/her own ax to grind. That’s why America would be so much better off with an independent education-performance audit bureau.

A fine idea, but like a newspaper ombudsman or “public editor,” there will always be some question about how one’s judgement is colored by the interest of whoever is signing the check.  Apropos of which, I keep running into this quote from David Simon, the creator of The Wire. 

 ”You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America – school test scores, crime stats, arrest stats – anything that a politician can run on [or] anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.”

Sounds cynical, I know.  But hard to argue.


  1. Of course Margaret Spellings is going to put the Bush administration’s spin on test results. It’s similar to Condy Rice’s attempt to deny the administration’s water-boarding practices to a fourth grader.

    For me, NCLB has been beneficial for one reason. It formally identified the achievement gap. Now, at least the proper resources can be allocated to the identified populations to hopefully get this cohort of youngsters the help they need. Prior to the tests there actually people in the educational establishment who insisted there were no problems in our schools. Ya, right!

    And of course Diane Ravitch’s tempered view of the federal legislation adds a much needed sense of reality to the Bush’s spin.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 5, 2009 @ 6:38 am

  2. It’s interesting to note how many people take credit for gains that occurred before their reforms took effect. Aaron Pallas (Skoolboy) argues that Spellings takes credit for large NAEP gains that occurred between 1999 and early in 2003, before the U.S. DoE approved state accountability plans. Diane Ravitch has repeatedly criticized the New York DoE for taking credit for gains that could more fairly be attributed to the previous superintendent. Perhaps people like Skoolboy and Ravitch are the closest we can come to that independent audit agency–though (as you imply) some would question their independence, too.

    Comment by Claus — May 5, 2009 @ 7:03 am

  3. Paul, I agree with you. I had something of a Damascus Road conversion on testing as a teacher. At first, I was all for it. Welcomed it with open arms. I thought — still do, in fact — that in our worst schools, testing provided an organizing principle that at least brought instructional order to chaos. But it’s like a short-term stimulus; it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The longer I taught, the more concerned I became that the testing tail was wagging the teaching dog. And more to the point, it thought it unfair that I might be held accountable for test results when I had far less than complete control of my environment, pedagogy and curriculum. In short, I was to be told what to teach and how to teach it, then held accountable for the results? That doesn’t make sense. If you want to hold me accountable for a goal, then give me the benchmark and I’ll decide how to get there. Don’t force me to do balanced literacy, Reader’s Workshop and Everyday Math then suggest it’s my fault if the kids don’t perform.

    Claus, I agree on Ravitch and Aaron “Skoolboy” Pallas. I’m by no means questioning their indepenedence. They’re strong, credible observers. The problem is (and it’s not their problem) that most of the world tends to defer to authority since they don’t have time to sort through data and reach conclusions as to who is and is not a dispassionate observer. Another piece of this that Checker’s piece doesn’t address: it’s not just those talking about the data who have skin in the game. As recipients, we tend to listen to voices whose testimony confirms our preconceived notions, and reject those whose opinion contradicts it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 5, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  4. Robert,

    Administration always told us what to teach but NO ONE ever told me how to teach it. I would have politely shown them the door if they had.

    And yes, the testing tail has been wagging the teaching dog – for too long. Talk about nonsensical! However, we need to remember why all the testing was forced upon us and accountability has become the mantra of our schools.

    The dictatorship in the NYCity public schools as described by Diana et al is nothing short of beyond belief. What would make any college student want to be a teacher under those circumstances? For an entire career??? I wouldn’t want to be placed in that situation for even a day.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 5, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

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