One of the most memorable phrases crafted by former President George W. Bush’s speechwriters was “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The phrase first gained prominence in a 1999 campaign speech on education, in which Bush argued that not holding disadvantaged students to high expectations was a form of discrimination—a powerful argument that he linked, without irony, to the claim that his administration would only fund initiatives that had been proven to close the achievement gap.
The centerpiece of the Bush administration’s school reform efforts was, of course, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires annual standardized testing of virtually every child in the country enrolled in grades 3-8 in English Language Arts and mathematics. At the time of its passage, one could scarcely claim that NCLB was a proven reform.
The current generation of education policymakers—including prominent figures such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and New York State Commissioner of Education John King, Jr.—have continued this tradition of “leap before you look.” Their recent comments make clear that they plan to “move forward” as fast as they can on the implementation of the Common Core standards and the tests that love them. And a bunch of other stuff, too.
New York is a case in point. In 2013, the state simultaneously implemented a statewide teacher evaluation system and a new system of assessments aligned with the Common Core standards. The Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) process required that 20 percent of the evaluation of teachers of English Language Arts and mathematics in grades 4-8 be based on an estimate of their contribution to their students’ performance on the state assessments, using a statistical technique called Student Growth Percentiles, closely resembling value-added measures (VAM) of teachers’ contributions to test performance.
The new tests, administered in the spring of 2013, were academically challenging, and a majority of students across New York were judged as performing below grade-level, based on the scores that were produced by the state’s testing contractor, Pearson. These test scores were then used as fodder for the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to compute a teacher’s Mean Growth Percentile score, classifying fourth-grade through eighth-grade teachers of English and math into the categories of “highly effective,” “effective,” “developing” or “ineffective.”
New York sent teachers’ Mean Growth Percentile scores to its 700 school districts in August 2013, which enabled teachers to receive their overall evaluation scores and categories by September 1, 2013. But no one—neither teachers, parents, journalists nor researchers—has had access to the information necessary to evaluate either the quality of the tests or the quality of the Mean Growth Percentiles. That’s because the technical reports that tell us about last year’s state assessments have yet to be released to the public.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Last week, the state of New York began administration of this year’s Common Core-aligned assessments—before the state has released information about the quality of last year’s tests. There’s no timetable for the release of Pearson’s technical report on the 2013 tests, which differ substantially in form and difficulty from previous years.
New York is taking a huge risk in producing growth percentiles (and, in the future, value-added scores) from student test data before the technical reports are finalized. If an error were to be found in the testing report—a test item not behaving appropriately, but still being used to calculate a student’s score—then all of the growth percentile/value-added scores on which those test scores rely would have to be recalculated. That would do grave damage to the legitimacy of the APPR system.
Even worse, once students’ scores are “finalized” (in June or so) and sent to AIR to calculate growth percentiles/value-added scores, there will be tremendous pressure for Pearson to make sure that the technical report justifies the scores that were produced. This results in things for which there might be honest differences of opinion—that might yield different estimates of students’ scores, and hence of teachers’ performance—being portrayed as the only acceptable way to do things.
Anyone who believes that the methods of science remove the role of human judgment from the process has a fundamental misunderstanding of how science proceeds. Many scientific assumptions and operational decisions are contested, and the particular mix of assumptions and choices made by education researchers can have serious consequences for the conclusions they draw from their research. We count on the openness of the scientific enterprise—making public the methods, data and results, and subjecting the choices that scientists make to the scrutiny of interested stakeholders—as the heart of scientific objectivity; that openness is the mechanism that seeks to regulate the influence of the idiosyncratic beliefs of an individual researcher (or team of researchers) on the scientific enterprise.
We should expect a vigorous public debate about school reform in general and high-stakes testing in particular—a debate that demands as much information as is available about the nature of these tests and their consequences.
For policymakers such as Secretary Duncan and New York State Commissioner King to dismiss the voices of parents and teachers—let alone education researchers, journalists and students themselves—as if they have no legitimate stake in discussions about the role of high-stakes tests in contemporary U.S. education, and to be intolerant of their expressions of dissent, is arguably a form of bigotry. Not on the basis of race or ethnicity, or other traditional markers of an individual’s position in society, but rather on the basis of a set of beliefs about the dangers of high-stakes testing for children, for their teachers, and for the well-being of the education system overall.
Through their actions, Secretary Duncan and Commissioner King have demonstrated that they don’t expect these stakeholders to have a say in our schools.
It’s the soft bigotry of no expectations.