Whistleblowers Delight

by Robert Pondiscio
January 5th, 2010

Did anyone else get that remarkable email from the organizers of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education yesterday?  The subject line read “BBA Needs Your Help.”  If you just hit delete, you missed a fascinating email.  BBA, which argues that test-driven accountability narrows the curriculum and creates test obsession in schools is asking teachers to submit examples of schools (presumably their own) that have suffered under strict accountability measures:

In a recent meeting, we advised Department of Education staff that their policy of identifying the lowest-performing 5% of schools in each state, in order to target these schools for massive intervention and “turnaround,” was bound to have adverse consequences if these schools were identified primarily by such test scores. We said that many schools that should be considered among the lowest performing schools would be missed if they artificially boosted their test scores at the expense of a balanced curriculum, by excessive test preparation activities and other gaming. And other schools that pursued a more balanced curriculum and attended to children’s long run achievement might falsely be identified as among the lowest-performing schools because they refused to engage in activities that artificially boosted test scores.

The letter, which doesn’t seem to appear on BBA’s website, notes DOE staff ”were not persuaded,” and asked the group to provide “examples of low-performing schools whose test scores have been artificially inflated by excessive test preparation and gaming, and better schools with very low scores but that were delivering a higher quality of instruction.”  The email, which carries the signatures of BBA organizers Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, and Tom Payzant, then asks recipients to identify such schools by name. 

Please include the name of the school, the name(s) of your source(s) of information, and other identifying information in your description. We will not initially provide all of this identifying information in the material we supply to the Department, but we have to be prepared to back up our claims by naming names if necessary.

It’s a bold move by BBA, although they might also consider sending along a copy of Linda Perlstein’s Tested.  I suspect they will find no shortage of schools that have muscled up on test prep and played games to boost test scores.  Whether teachers at those schools are willing to publicly say so is another matter. 

BBA is on shakier ground, I believe, in looking for good schools whose efforts don’t show up on test scores.  If a school is delivering a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum and “attending to children’s long run achievement” that should show up on test scores, assuming the effort is long-running, ongoing and well-implemented.


  1. In the for whatever it’s worth column, Pedro Noguera and Tom Payzant both have stellar reputations here in the Boston/Cambridge area.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 5, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  2. Good post Robert.

    Comment by GGW — January 5, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  3. So these folks waited until after their meeting with government officials to look for even a single example of such a school?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — January 5, 2010 @ 11:43 am

  4. I used to get e-mails from them, but not anymore. Don’t know why.

    Comment by Matthew K. Tabor — January 5, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  5. You don’t, Matthew? Hmm. And all this time I thought you were a smart guy. ;-)

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 5, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

  6. I would guess it would be difficult to find a high performing school that tests poorly because one doesn’t exist.

    If I’m wrong, though, how can you tell a school is high performing without tests? What evidence can you examine?

    I would argue grades and anecdotal evidence would be unreliable evidence of high achievement.

    Comment by AJGuzzaldo — January 5, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

  7. To Stuart Buck and AJGuzzaldo:
    No, they didn’t “[wait] until after their meeting with government officials to look for even a single example of such a school.”

    Here’s more of what they wrote in the letter, as one example of “A school with low test scores but a high quality of instruction”:

    “Here is a link for one of several Newcomer schools in California — Newcomer High in SF. Students attend when they enter the country for only a short time until they learn English. Its test scores are abysmal but it has a hard-working and experienced staff and a 96% attendance rate among students (unheard of at the high school level). When the students learn enough English to pass the state tests, they move on.

    Comment by B Adams — January 6, 2010 @ 12:52 am

  8. It’s also important to be aware of trend lines in schools. What if they’ve moved from abysmal to decidedly less abysmal in the previous year. The school may still be low performing in absolute terms, but the seeds of change may have been sewn. In any event, context is always important….

    Comment by Claus — January 6, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

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