Test score gains fade in NYC and DC: time to focus on teaching quality?

Many large school districts have been using a combination of narrowed curriculum, lock-step teaching procedures, and high stakes accountability to improve education. But as standardized scores have fallen off in prominent systems, one education guru questions if a focus on effective teaching is on the horizon.

News of test score “fade” from both New York City and the District of Columbia schools is surfacing. Both districts — often held up as emerging models of school reform — have used a combination of narrowed curriculum, lock-step teaching procedures, and high stakes teacher accountability to produce some short-term gains. But now the story lines of Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, two of the nation’s most well-known school superintendents, may need to change.

With the release of 2010 results, NYC passing rates dropped by more than 25 percent and the achievement gap (between white and minority students) widened substantially. In DC, school leaders had to admit that their heralded gains in the elementary schools over two previous years are now evaporating. They do not know why.

Test score gain can fluctuate for a lot of reasons, including statistical error and student mobility. and for these reasons (and others) experts claim that no test should be used as the primary arbiter of who is doing the best job of educating children.

Dan Koretz, one of the nation’s leading experts on student assessment, has concluded (p. 8) that high stakes testing often results in “substantial distortions of practice” in the classroom “and inflation of test scores.” He writes: “The seriousness of this problem is hard to overstate. When scores are inflated, many of the most important conclusions people base on them will be wrong, and students — and sometimes teachers — will suffer as a result.”

But well-documented observations by Koretz and others have not deterred zealous school reformers or journalists looking to make a splashy headline, such as Newsweek’s recent in-your-face cover story on “bad teachers” as the root cause of America’s failing public education system.

I don’t know any supporters of a positive approach to teaching quality and teacher evaluation who would question whether NYC or DC schools need to overhaul how they recruit, support, assess and pay teachers. That’s clearly what’s best for students. But I do wonder if the recent failings of Klein and Rhee’s heralded reform schemes — which grow out of a one-dimensional view of effectiveness — will raise more questions among the public about how we judge schools and the teachers who teach in them.

Maybe we’re moving toward a tipping point. I’m encouraged that Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has opened up her blog The Answer Sheet to voices from many sides of the assessment issue — and especially to teacher voices. I wonder if there may be more of an interest now in how to elevate and spread the performance of effective teachers who do more than raise a test score a point or two — and ultimately less interest in firing a few teachers who do not always generate gains in lock-step ways from year to year.

I’m feeling a bit optimistic: I’m sensing that more and more of us want to focus on effective teaching and how to cultivate, spread and sustain it — and not on a paradigm of punishment and recrimination.

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