Let It Grow!

While guestblogging Bryan Hassel offered one way that so-called growth models of accountability could benefit high achieving kids and noted that Eduwonk has been less than enthusiastic about the rush to embrace this strategy.

Here’s why. In theory, there is little objectionable about incorporating value-added or growth measures into NCLB (though it’s worth noting that NCLB’s oft-overlooked “safe-harbor” provisions are basically a growth model now). In fact, all else equal it’s the way to go. Thing is, all else isn’t equal and there are substantive and political problems with growth/value-added as a widespread solution now.

First the substance. Despite all the talk, few states are positioned to really implement such changes now. That’s because data tracking systems and assessment systems are still too primitive or incomplete. As the Education Commission of the States notes “most states can report broadly about how various groups of students are doing. But in general, state systems aren’t yet able to put together different types of information to look at the performance of individual students over time.”

NCLB helped set some progress in motion on this front but the Bush Administration has failed to make it a priority either in terms of funding or technical support. A massive national effort is needed and the Administration has basically been AWOL when it could be a valuable partner for the states. Good primers here (pdf) and here (pdf) on some of the issues involved.

In addition, while Hassel is proposing something for kids already “proficient” in math and reading, it’s worth remembering that a lot of students, particularly minority students, are not. Consider Illinois from this recent post or visit www.schoolmatters.com and look for your own state. A primary impetus behind the 1994 and 2001 versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the latter the infamous No Child Left Behind) was to ensure common standards across states. Deciding how much value-added or growth is enough does run a risk of turning back the clock, as they say. And, if the standards are at all meaningful then allowing growth or value-added will not result in significantly fewer schools being identified as “needing improvement” another goal of some growth/value promoters.

The politics are tough, too. Fixing chronically low-performing schools is not a measurement problem, it’s a political one. Actually holding adults accountable is the hardest thing to do in education policymaking and the track record of doing so is pretty poor. As George Miller has noted, a meaningful accountability system cannot allow low-performing schools to always be “getting there.” However, politically, establishing parameters that trigger consequences gets you right back in the box policymakers are in now: Aggrieved interest groups demanding relief from actual consequences. It’s an old story. The law’s hardcore critics are not holding out for a more textured measurement system but rather one without serious consequences.

Bottom line. Important idea going forward, probably some intermediate steps along the way and opportunities for leader states that are further down the tracks, but not actionable in lieu of the current system now (and a real risk of creating something in the meantime that looks like accountability, but isn’t).

Thankfully though, less dour prognoses abound! Look for a magazine piece by Tom Toch sorting out these issues and pointing a way forward in the coming weeks.

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