Move over Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Time to make room for the School Performance Profile (SPP). Pennsylvania has just been granted its waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which had required that all students in the country be proficient in reading and math by next year. But don’t start celebrating just yet.
When it became apparent that AYP goals were pie in the sky, states started lining up to get waivers. It took Pennsylvania longer than most others to get in line (41 others were ahead of us). But that’s only because then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis was concerned that a waiver would force the state to change the way it performs standardized testing and that any new federal laws could make the state change its testing again. Once it became clear there would be no new federal legislation, Pennsylvania applied for the waiver, which comes with plenty of strings attached. [See “Waiver no Favor”]
What we will get now is a School Performance Profile, based on student test participation rates, graduation and attendance rates, and two measures of progress towards closing achievement gaps. [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] That means that three out of the four “annual measurable objectives” in the profile will be based on student testing. In other words, SPP threatens to simply replace the old high-stakes-test-crazy system with a new one. Or as our Shippensburg grassroots colleague Susan Spicka aptly put it: “It is absurd that our state government is focusing so much time, energy and money ensuring that all children have an equal opportunity to be evaluated when it is clear that all children do not have an equal opportunity to learn.” [The Sentinel, 8-22-13]
And that’s exactly the problem. This new SPP system will label schools without providing any real help for struggling students. If a school receives federal Title I money (based on its proportion of poor students), it will be labeled “priority,” “focus,” or “reward.” All other schools will get a profile score. It’s not clear if that score will be a number or letter grade (A – F), which is very trendy right now among corporate-style-reformers who support vouchers, charter-expansion, school closure, and other privatization efforts. Either way, the bottom line is these rating systems do not appear to work and are definitely subject to cheating.
In an analysis of Indiana’s school grading system, sociologist Matthew Di Carlo found an extremely high correlation between poverty and a school’s grade. Almost 85% of low-poverty schools earned and A or B, and almost none got a D or F, while over half of the high-poverty schools earned Ds and Fs. A full 80% of the schools labeled as failing with an F were in the highest poverty quartile. Dr. Di Carlo concluded, “This is not at all surprising. It is baked into this system (and you’ll see roughly the same thing in other states).” [Albert Shanker Institute, 11-1-12]
This summer we learned how these school grading systems encourage adults to cheat. Have you heard of “Campbell’s Law”? Dr. Donald Campbell was a social scientist who famously theorized, “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
That is exactly what happens with high-stakes-testing and its application to school grading. Earlier this month Florida’s state superintendent, Tony Bennett, was forced to resign after reporters discovered that he had changed accountability measures to lift the grades of several schools back in Indiana when he was the elected public school leader of that state. In one case, he helped change a C to an A grade for a charter school run by and named after one of his campaign donors. [Politico, 8-1-13] See the distortion and corruption of Campbell’s Law?
And even when school grading systems aren’t corrupted, they still have the effect of reinforcing inequality. Next door in New Jersey, forty-five parent groups and civil rights groups petitioned U.S. Secretary Duncan last year to stop the waiver process that was imposing the priority-focus-reward labeling system in that state. Those groups found that the system targeted the poorest schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students with mandated interventions, including possible closure or conversion to charter schools. The coalition noted that the 122 “reward” schools identified by the state, which were all to receive financial bonuses, were all located in the wealthiest districts. They concluded, “The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.” [Save Our Schools NJ, 10-15-12]
It appears that Pennsylvania may sidestep this issue by using two separate systems here: applying the SPP score to all schools, and the priority-focus-reward labels only to Title I schools. But without actual assistance for struggling students and districts, all of these scores and labels are meaningless. In fact, they are harmful, since they tend to have major consequences – from stigmatizing schools (who wants to send their kids to an “F-rated” school?), to further narrowing the curriculum (since the high-stakes-tests cover only the basics, subjects like art, music, and world languages get fewer and fewer resources), to the threat of closure.
It’s almost a cruel joke to hear Gov. Corbett announce, “This waiver allows Pennsylvania to focus on improving schools by directing resources to areas that help students academically succeed.” [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] Oh really? What resources would those be? Our schools are still missing $2.3 BILLION in cuts since 2011. [See “Budget Failure”] This year, when the legislature approved a miniscule increase over last year’s budget, it allowed select legislators to hand out extra funds to 21 of their favorite school districts – with no basis at all in directing resources to helping real students in need. [Lancaster Online, 7-21-13]
Under the new SPP labeling system, Gov. Corbett’s administration promises interventions, “focusing on having principals who are strong leaders; ensuring effective teachers; providing additional time for student learning and teacher collaboration; and strengthening instructional programs.” The state will also “provide academic recovery liaisons to help priority schools.” [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] Hello, what? Where is the money to hire back our teachers, school counselors, nurses, and librarians? How about some funding for our after-school tutoring programs we had to cut? And early childhood education? Maybe SPP should stand for Stupid Public Policy.
If we are serious about offering interventions and supports to struggling schools, we have to be talking about wrap-around services that address trenchant disparities: we need community healthcare in the buildings, childcare, adult job and literacy training, family crisis services. We need to make sure communities have a good public school to send their children to and that we aren’t creating school deserts. We need authentic parent engagement. And we need to make schools enriching, welcoming places that students want to be in with full art programs and a wide range of activities.
I worry that SPP will just replace AYP: with more high-stakes-testing, more labeling-and-punishing schools, more blaming teachers, and still no results for our kids.