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Why Our Definition Of "Failure" Gets An F

The accountability movement is quick to label teachers and schools "failing" based on test scores and other external benchmarks. But details suggest we may be missing something.

American schools have spent close to $4.4 billion on testing in the past decade thanks to No Child Left Behind. The ideal of the accountability movement was to impose some quality standards where few existed: to sanction schools, and sometimes individual teachers, whose students don’t perform up to par. Schools labeled as "persistently low-performing"—based on the results of standardized, multiple-choice tests—may be automatically subject to closure, mass firings, or the removal of the principal. Sounds objective, right?

Two recent articles have pointed out the absurdities that sometimes result when "failure" is defined this narrowly. Kristina Rizga in Mother Jones spent a year embedded at Mission High in San Francisco and found passionate and dedicated teachers helping excited and engaged students overcome difficult backgrounds. Dropout rates are down 75% at this school; almost nine out of 10 go on to college. But it’s on the list for restructuring or possibly even closure, because according to the Department of Education, it’s among the lowest-performing 5% of schools in the nation. This is based on tests taken in English by a majority first-generation population, one in five of whom arrived in this country within the past two years.

Similarly, the Washington Post's education blogger talked to Carolyn Abbott, labeled the "worst 8th grade math teacher in New York City" according to her students’ scores on state math tests.

Here, the story behind the story is equally muddy. Abbott taught the same students the year before, in seventh grade, and they scored at the 98th percentile of New York City students. That meant that as eighth-graders the next year, they were predicted to score at the 97th percentile.

But by eighth grade her students were learning math that was at least three years ahead of the concepts presented on the state test. And the exam was low-stakes—they took it at the end of the year, after they’d already gotten into high school. The smarty-pants scored at only the 89th percentile on the test, meaning they’d fallen far short of expectations—even though at the same time, 100% passed the more rigorous Regents Exam in Algebra, the material they were actually learning. The conclusion of the state’s formula was that Abbott had not "added value."

"It was humiliating," Abbott said, to be labeled a failure in the New York Times and elsewhere, where the list was published. She decided to leave teaching.

All of this doesn’t mean that the quest for accountability should be abandoned, but our nation’s love affair with the multiple-choice bubble test clearly needs to come to a close after 70 years. New tools like Kickboard Wireless Generation, and ClassDojo have the potential to help teachers capture far more fine-grained data about students’ day-to-day performance and interactions, which besides being good for teaching, could eventually be made the basis of a more nuanced picture of what happens in schools. But this data needs to be paired with nuanced judgments by politicians and the public.