The Great Accountability Scam: High-Stakes Testing Edition

Among other teachers and education scholars, I have been making a case throughout my 36 years in education that has prompted mostly derision from edureformers, politicians, the media, and “no excuses” advocates; the position grounded in evidence includes:

  • Standardized and high-stakes tests are weak proxies for student achievement and teacher/school quality but powerful proxies for the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and communities.
  • And thus, important contributions made by teachers and schools to student learning are very difficult to measure or identify in any direct or singular way (either in a one-sitting test or linked to one teacher over one course, etc.).
  • Accountability structures do not and cannot reform in any substantive way teaching and learning; in fact, high-stakes standards and testing are likely to impact negatively complex and powerful teaching and learning in the name of democracy, human agency, and equity.
  • All in-school-only education reform, then, will appear to (and actually) “fail” as long as public policy does not first or concurrently address socioeconomic inequities such as healthcare, work quality and stability, food insecurity, safety and justice, etc.
  • Social and educational reforms are extremely complex and take far more time than political and public impatience allows; however, the proper political will should shift the U.S. social and educational reform toward an equity structure (not an accountability structure) in order to see observable positive change over time.
  • In-school equity reform must address teacher assignments, de-tracking course access, fully funding all in-school meals, fully publicly funding K-16 education, school discipline and dress codes grounded in restorative justice and race/class/gender equity, and student/teacher ratios.

Historically and currently, public education—as well as charter schools and private schools—serve well the students with the most race, class, and gender privileges and mis-serve inexcusably the most vulnerable students—black and brown students, English language learners, special needs students, and impoverished students.

Accountability does not and cannot address that gap; high-stakes testing measures that gap and often increases the inequity since the stakes are tied to gatekeeping in education and society.

Formal education in the U.S. has mostly reflected and perpetuated our national and regional inequities, and the claim that schooling is a “game changer” remains a deforming myth.

As a recent additional source of evidence for my claims, please see this study by Kenneth Shores, Pennsylvania State University and Matthew P. Steinberg, George Mason University:

The Great Recession was the most severe economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression. Using data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), we describe the patterns of math and English language arts (ELA) achievement for students attending schools in communities differentially affected by recession-induced employment shocks. Employing a difference-in-differences strategy that leverages both cross-county variation in the economic shock of the recession and within-county, cross-cohort variation in school-age years of exposure to the recession, we find that declines in student math and ELA achievement were greater for cohorts of students attending school during the Great Recession in communities most adversely affected by recession-induced employment shocks, relative to cohorts of students that entered school after the recession had officially ended. Moreover, declines in student achievement were larger in school districts serving more economically disadvantaged and minority students. We conclude by discussing potential policy responses. (Abstract)

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Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

About midway through my first 18 years in education as a high school English teacher, I had mostly de-graded and de-tested my courses except, of course, for having to comply with mandates such as midterm/final exams and course grades.

At some point, my students and I began to openly parody grade culture in a sort of wink-wink-nod-nod way that included my saying “Minus 5!” any time a student offered an incorrect answer during a class discussion.

We all smiled and laughed.

As I approach the same amount of time in the second wave of my career as an educator, now a university professor at a selective college, I continue to use that skit, adding at times a “Plus 10!” with exuberance when someone offers something really thoughtful.

My college students are hyper-students, having been very successful in school for many years while receiving as well as expecting high grades because of the student-skills they have developed.

Despite my careful and detailed explanations upfront that I do not grade and do not give tests, these college students struggle, some times mightily, in a de-graded classroom. Once, for example, a student emailed me about how to make up the “minus 5” I had taken away in the class discussion.

This semester in my educational foundations course and an upper-level writing/research course, many of the greatest flaws with grading culture have sprung up once again.

Even as we approach the end of the semester, I have had several students email me asking for extensions on submitting their major essay. I have to carefully reply that the concept of an extension isn’t relevant in a course that doesn’t grade and is grounded in the requirement that all assignments must be completed fully (and ideally on time) and resubmitted in a final portfolio.

In all of my courses, essays must also be submitted in multiple drafts or I cap the final course grade.

I explain repeatedly to my students that we are here to learn and that if I focus on artifacts of their learning while requiring that all work be completed fully, I have no option other than accepting late work, and they have no real option except to submit work late if they cannot meet deadlines.

Yet, my college students often cannot fathom any other system except the culture of grading that they have navigated quite well for many years.

Broadly, as an educator, I am daily disturbed by witnessing my students trapped in a grade mentality and not a learning mentality. As I have explored many times, the rewards/punishments elements of grading discourages risk and even effort in students and thus weakens the learning process that often requires a series of flawed efforts by students combined with mentoring from a teacher who requires and encourages informed revised efforts.

School at all levels, however, is just a statistical wrestling match between students and grade culture in which some students persist, hoping to excel, and many students simply try to survive in order to find some sort of freedom at the end.

Over the past couple of weeks, my educational foundations students have been submitting their major essay. I purposefully scaffold this assignment by having students present in groups earlier in the semester; those group presentations include focusing on students finding high-quality research for their topics and (for many) learning some basics of APA citation (the preferred style sheet in education).

I refuse to provide groups feedback on the group presentations until the group submits a correct and adequate references list for their sources used. This strategy lays the groundwork for each member having a start on sources for their individual essay and for my students to become somewhat acclimated to my minimum requirements approach to assignments (contrasted with grading).

Major cited essays are powerful windows into how a culture of grades degrades learning.

Students are provided a sample APA cited essay with notes and several checklists for preparing and revising an essay using APA citation; much of this is meticulously covered in class as well.

I also schedule some workshop time in class to help students with both trivial and significant elements of preparing a document in Word (headers can be a nightmare using APA). Then, as the first submission due date approaches, I stress that I will not provide feedback unless students submit a full first draft that includes some fundamental elements of formatting and citation [1].

However, as I experience every semester, several students submitted essays that were unacceptable (let me emphasize here, that when I reject these essays, the only recourse is that students address this problem by submitting a minimally acceptable draft as soon as possible, and I will meet with them if they are unsure how to do that despite the ample support I have already provided).

This included essays submitted without adequate sources (I stress the need to use peer-reviewed journal articles as the foundation of their sources, but also encourage a variety of sources), without a references list on the document, with a reference list but no citations in the essay, with some jumbled hybrid of MLA (usually the references list labeled “Works Cited” and then the bibliographies a wild Frankenstein’s monster of formatting), or as a document clearly in an early stage of brainstorming—what they would consider drafting—such as huge gaps between paragraphs, different colored fonts, and their own comments to themselves scattered throughout.

I have this happen despite stressing repeatedly they should submit the first draft of the essay as if they can never revise.

These dynamics in a degraded class that emphasizes authentic artifacts of learning and provides students ample opportunities to revise their work with my feedback in the form of comments on their work and conferences highlight that many students are unable to break free from a culture of grading, even when provided the opportunity.

Most students simply have their grades lowered when they fail to format and cite properly; that process tells them that these things really do not matter.

Yet, in my work as a scholar, I know that part of the authority a writer gains if from the trivial (formatting documents) and the essential (finding, understanding, and incorporating high-quality sources).

A culture of grading allows both students and teachers to be lazy about the things we claim to care about the most, such as authentic learning that translates into the so-called real world.

Once again, I have watched as several students have become angry at me and deeply frustrated by a process that is both requiring and supporting them to learn, in some cases for the first time, aspects of being a scholar that benefits them across their work as students and then in their lives after that.

What some are framing as “mean,” however, is a tenacity on my part that often results in students coming to understand and then apply the very things we sought to learn. But that process is unnecessarily painful because of the culture of grades that, in fact, asks less of students and teachers.

The culture of grades remains incredibly powerful in formal schooling, and as I discover time and time again, it makes the work of teaching and learning nearly impossible.

In the wake of this essay assignment and many of my formerly happy students struggling, my “Minus 5” rings a bit hollow these days among the tense faces of really bright young people more concerned about their grades than anything class has to offer.


[1] From my checklist, for example:

Checklist for Revising Cited Essay

Format in APA

[ ] Entire Word document (including header) is in Times New Roman, 12 pt. font, and double-spaced

[ ] Cover page has “Different First Page” checked, and running head formatted as follows:

Running head: RUNNING HEAD IN ALL CAPS                                                                1

[ ] Page 2 and beyond has running head only, as in:

RUNNING HEAD IN ALL CAPS                                                                                        2

[ ] Except for new paragraphs, do NOT format page breaks (cover page to page 2 and final page to references) with returns and do NOT format hanging indents or block quotes with return>tab.

[ ] Include a few subheads to organize the essay, but a subhead should be several paragraphs (not one), and avoid “Conclusion” as your final subhead (be interesting and specific).

Style and Citation in APA

[ ] Do not announce sources (avoid referring to the author[s] and titles of your sources when citing research) in your discussion.

[ ] Prefer synthesis of multiple sources and discussing the conclusions (patterns) from those sources—and thus, avoid quoting and simply cataloging one source at a time.

[ ] Take care with proper APA parenthetic citation; note the use of commas, page numbers with quotes only, and the placement of periods, for example:

Ironically, of course, we almost never hear a word of protest about the abundant misinformation found in our U. S. history textbooks (Loewen, 1996; Zinn, 1995), primarily because the misinformation better supports the meritocracy myth our schools are obligated to promote for the good of the society.

While Greene (1978) argues that “democracy is and has been an open possibility, not an actuality”—thus requiring “the kinds of action [by teachers] that make a difference in the public space” (pp. 58, 59)—the reality of school’s focus on socialization is that we are committed to capitalism above all else, even at the expense of democracy (Engel, 2000).

Recent scholarship on this concern for diversity and the achievement gap among races and socioeconomic groups has shown that when we attempt institutional approaches to “critical issues,” the result is corrupted by the system itself, resulting in a widespread acceptance of the work of Ruby Payne (1996), work that has no research supporting the “framework” and work that reinforces the assumptions (deficit thinking) about race and diversity that are common in our society (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008; Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2009; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2006a; Gorski, 2006b; Gorski, 2008; Thomas, 2009).

[ ] Parenthetical citation of paraphrased or synthesized sources require including the author(s) last name and publication year the FIRST time in each new paragraph, but multiple uses after that include ONLY the last name. Do not have several in-text citations over multiple paragraphs if all of the citations are paraphrasing. For example:

Greene (1978) is exploring the central dilemma offered by John Dewey, a dilemma that has been misunderstood at best and ignored at worst: Dewey “knew that optimism, demands for conformity, and ‘riotous glorification of things “as they are”’ discouraged critical thought” (p. 62). In U.S. society, and thus schools, critical challenges are popularly viewed as outright rejections. Within critical pedagogy, the challenges to assumptions are seen as fruitful, an essential part of process toward emancipatory practice, toward the ideal of democracy as “an open possibility” (Greene, p. 58).

[ ] Do NOT include hyperlinks in bibliographies in your references lists from your library searches (ebsco, galegroup links) or from jstor for hard-copy sources (includes page numbers).

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

Each time there is a flurry of comments about grades on social media, I am compelled to advocate for de-grading and de-testing the classroom. Also, each time I make my case, many people offer lukewarm support wrapped in a great deal of skepticism about those practices in real-world classrooms.

My career as an educator has had two nearly equal spans of about two decades each—first as a high school English teacher in a rural public school, and second as a current professor in a selective university where I teach in the education department but also have two first-year writing seminars each fall.

I both learned and practiced over my first decade of teaching the need to de-grade and de-test my classes, notably to support effective writing instruction. So I must stress here that my endorsing de-grading, or at least delaying grading, is grounded in my work as a teacher in a very traditional high school setting where I still had to issue interim reports and quarterly, mid-term, and final grades.

And my entire career, of course, has been working with students who expect grades, students who are often disoriented by and even disturbed by my atypical approaches to grades and assessment.

Virtually all of us who teach, regardless of level or type of school, will have to issue grades at some point. Even as an avid proponent of no grades and no tests, I must assign course grades, and I must fulfill obligations for assessments, such as midterm and final exams.

In our real-world classrooms, then, I am practicing and calling for delaying grades, while also increasing significantly feedback on authentic assessments that require and allow students to revisit their work as a journey to greater understanding and deeper learning.

And, yes, my practices and arguments are primarily grounded in my commitment to literacy instruction, mostly writing, and my educational philosophy, critical pedagogy, as well as my skepticism about knowledge acquisition (I embrace content as a means, not an ends, of teaching).

While I am no fan of compromise, I do have a deeply pragmatic streak; therefore, I try to be very clear that I am not advocating some idealistic set of practices from a rarified teaching situation that isn’t applicable to other educators.

Here I want to outline what real-world practices I have for many years implemented and currently implement that merge well, I think, with my belief in de-grading and de-testing with entrenched and often non-negotiable expectations of teaching.

Establish minimum requirements of participation and artifact production as mandatory for course/class credit. My syllabus and daily schedules clearly state that students must complete assignments and submit all artifacts both throughout the course/class and then as a final portfolio. Those minimum requirements I establish are non-negotiable and students are not allowed to pick and choose which to fulfill. In other words, I do not average grades and I do record an F for any student who fails to complete and submit all of the minimum requirements. (See minimum requirements detailed in my first-year writing syllabus.)

Delay grading of assignments and eliminate high-stakes of grades and rubrics. Once participation is required (for example, students must draft, submit essays, meet for conferences, and submit rewrites) for course/class credit (a final grade), teachers are given more space to offer feedback without grading—thus delaying a grade until students have had opportunities to take risks while practicing new learning. One example from teaching Advanced Placement Literature helps illustrate how even numerical feedback can work in this context. I shared with students A.P. Literature rubrics for previous test writing prompts, and then I did assign practice essay responses the appropriate 9-point scale grade; however, students knew these were recorded but did not factor into their course grade (other than needing to be completed). The 9-scale number was feedback for their understanding of where their work stood and how we could improve for the actual test in the spring. Overwhelmingly, my students participated fully in the practice sessions (they had an authentic goal of doing well on the A.P. test), and noted that other teachers translating these A.P. scale scores to class grades inhibited their work and attitudes about the assignments. I learned in these classes that my rejecting grades and rubrics could be translated into more authentic uses of grades and rubrics as feedback and tools for learning by simply eliminating the stakes with those grades and rubrics.

Invite students into conversations about grades. The best concession I have made to de-grading my classes is to acknowledge that for students grades are a powerful reality. Now I invite students to initiate conferences with me about their current grade in my classes at any point and as often as they need throughout a course. While I give no grades on assignments, even as they revise, I will discuss with students what grade an assignment would deserve, and why, and what their grade status is in a course at any point along the way. The caveat, always, is that we do this in conversation (not by email or in writing) and that we recognize these estimations could change significantly as the course and their revisions progress.

Negotiate grade scales with required grade submissions in your school. My de-grading and de-testing practices have always been complicated by interim reports, midterm and final exam requirements, final grades, and the expectation that grading policies, scales, and calculations be posted on my syllabi. Most of my strategies in these contexts remain grounded in my minimum requirements approach. For interim reports and midterm grades, I submit only S (satisfactory) or I (incomplete) based on each student’s current status in relationship to minimum requirements at that point in the course; S is for students who have fully complied and I is for those missing work. I remind students and others that the I will become an F at the end of the course/class if students fail to fulfill the assignments. Midterm and final exams—both required at my university—have become different types of assessment: group and whole-class discussions, presentations, and portfolio assessment. And instead of posting how I calculate and average grades, and what grade scale I use, I include my minimum requirements statement on my syllabus.

I offer the above as no template or even demand, but one example of how I have tried to blend my educational philosophy with real-world expectations and non-negotiables.

I live under no delusion I can transform our formal education system into my ideal where we have no grades and no tests. But I do practice what I believe are more effective versions on these norms by delaying grades and lowering the stakes when students receive both rich and even numerical/grade feedback on assignments while they are exploring new or complex learning.

In short, this is my argument against those who brush away my de-grading and de-testing arguments as not realistic; they are.

But I also must push against those who believe my practices somehow encourage students not to be engaged in their assignments. I have witnessed for almost four decades now that the opposite is, in fact, true.

One reason I began this journey to minimum requirements instead of grading is that I watched students routinely take zeros (not do assignments at all) and still receive course credit. They were playing and manipulating the grade/averaging game of school.

Easily over my career, most of my students have participated fully and punctually with my assignments; overwhelmingly, they have shared that they feel more relaxed and engaged with their assignments without the immediate threat of grades.

While the novelty of my teaching and assessment practices cause some distress for students, traditional grades and the finality of summative assessments are far more harmful to student engagement and learning.

There is no perfect world—neither the world of traditional grading nor the ideal world without grades and tests.

But we can create a better world for our students, one in which they produce work and learn in a supportive environment where our primary role is mentoring through feedback instead of being the dreaded agent of evaluation.

My argument, then, is not for perfect or ideal, but better, better for our teaching, better for our students’ learning.

Dear Media, Stop Misrepresenting Reading Instruction, Please

From Education Week to the Hechinger Report to The Answer Sheet (the latter two typically good sources for education journalism), the media simply cannot resist publishing misguided takes on how we do and should teach reading.

Citing the National Reading Panel as credible (it isn’t), misrepresenting whole language and balanced literacy (as somehow anti-phonics), hand-wringing about third-grade reading ability, and taking broad uneven swipes at teacher education—these are the hallmarks of bad journalism and garbled takes (usually with ulterior motives) on the reading wars.

Since I simply cannot continue to make the same points over and over, I suggest below a bit of actual reading to clarify why the media continually misrepresents the reading wars:

Here is a final note worth emphasizing: Phonics-intense and phonics-only reading instruction is a gold mine for textbook publishers, reading program shills, and the testing industry.

Consider carefully the who and why of public commentaries screeching about reading instruction, especially when the arguments are full of easily identifiable holes in their credibility and logic.

Chicken-Little Politics and the Curse of Testing (and Standards) in South Carolina

I entered education as a high school teacher in South Carolina in the 1984-1985 academic year, the first year of a significant teacher pay raise and a pivotal ground zero in the state’s accountability era established in late 1970s legislation.

Over about four decades, SC has revised or changed educational standards six or seven times and implemented about the same number of different state and national tests.

And what hath this curse of testing and standards wrought for SC?

South Carolina students bomb the ACT, falling behind Mississippi, announces an article by Paul Bowers explaining:

South Carolina’s graduating class of 2018 came close to dead-last in the nation on the ACT college readiness test, painting a grim picture of a state that has languished near the bottom of education rankings for decades.

This year’s graduates placed 50th among the states and Washington, D.C., on the ACT, according to composite scores based on the test’s English, Reading, Math and Science sections.

Only Nevada’s students did worse.

The chicken-little politics of accountability has been fulfilled in ways that assure politicians, the public, and the media will declare schools, teachers, and students a failure. Yet again, and again, ad nauseam.

Let’s try something different here, ways to interpret better this data from the ACT.

The first key point about these scores is that SC is experiencing bureaucratic insanity—doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

The problem with eduction in SC has little to do with test scores, which overwhelmingly reflect what the problem is: Poverty and inequities grounded in that poverty as well as racism.

In fact, this response to the article exposes how misguided the entire process is:

While political and popular gazes remain fixed on test scores and standards (curriculum), we have failed to acknowledge that the quality—or even presence—of standards (and the concurrent curriculum) have no clear impact on measurable student outcomes.

The accountability era has not worked in SC, and it never will.

Ever-new standards and ever-new tests are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Here, then, are a couple more ways we can and should respond to the ACT scores.

Why is SC requiring all students to take a test to measure college readiness when a much smaller percentage of those students plan to enter college? And why this rush to prepare all students for college when it remains unaffordable for many, if not most, SC residents?

What assures that test scores on the ACT are mostly about teaching and learning, instead of poverty, racism, or even student effort (in other words, what assurance do we have that students have taken this test seriously)?

And finally, a significant failure of the chicken-little politics of test scores in SC is the misguided urge to rank (see the problems here).

What if we consider that SC is in the bottom quartile of states by poverty, and then, what if we concede that standardized tests are at least 60% and possibly over 80% linked to out-of-school factors (not any quality of schools, standards, or teaching) such as poverty and affluence? SC should be near or at the bottom of any rankings because of the state’s abysmal record of class and rank inequity as well as a very long history of underfunding and ignoring public education—especially in the most vulnerable communities.

This most recent sky-is-falling media report is our own hellish Groundhog Day experience; this article has been written dozens of times over the past four decades, and it can be recycled dozens of more times in the future.

Unlike the befuddled Phil (Bill Murray) in the movie, we actually can bring this nightmare to a stop.

If we have the political and public will, the media will be able to give this dark fairy tale a rest.

Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

As new legislation was being debated in South Carolina, what was destined to become Read to Succeed, I was in contact with some strong advocates for public education who were seeking ways to shape effective reading policy in the state.

My input was focused on acknowledging the research base that refuted the popular political agendas mostly mimicking Florida reading policies driven by standardized high-stakes testing and grade retention for third graders.

First, decades of research reveal that despite popular support for grade retention (and bending to public antagonism for social promotion) grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, especially our most vulnerable students (students living in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners).

Second, the Florida model has enough data and research to conclude that test-based third-grade retention produces some short-term bumps in test scores (what I would call false positives since this may be simply that students are taking the test again, and likely is not indication of reading growth) but those mirage-gains disappear over time (see Jasper’s doctoral dissertation on the data).

None the less, I was soon informed that there would be bi-partisan support for a new reading policy (Read to Succeed), even though it was flawed, because there would be an influx of more funding for reading.

Fast forward to now, the fall of 2018, when the first students are being impacted by this legislation—documented well by Paul Bowers at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

South Carolina schools held back about 354 students in third grade for the 2018-19 school year under a new law designed to retain students with reading deficiencies.

That figure represents about one-half of 1 percent of the third-graders who took the state SC READY reading subtest in the spring — and only about 8.5 percent of the students who earned the lowest possible grade, “Not Met 1.”

While many will read this as either failure or success in terms improving reading and literacy in the state, the real lessons here are about politics, and the essential failure of bureaucratic measures for educational purposes.

Let me unpack some of how the consequences of Read to Succeed for 300-plus students is much ado about politics (not reading):

  • Is SC 47th in reading proficiency in the U.S. as Bowers reports? This may seem obvious, or at least non-partisan data, but educational rankings are inherently flawed, thoroughly debunked by Gerald Bracey. SC is doomed to low rankings in reading if those rankings remain anchored to high-stakes standardized tests (which reflect socio-economic status of any child’s home and community than educational attainment) and if SC political leadership refuses to address the state being also mired in the bottom quartile of high-poverty states. To claim SC ranks at the bottom of reading proficiency is a distraction from the root cause of those scores—inequity and poverty.
  • Is retaining 300+ students too many or too few? Bowers coverage seems to imply that Read to Succeed has fallen well short of having an effective impact while, as I was referenced in the article, I remain adamant that 345 students retained are 345 too many. Here is why. This legislation has created a bureaucratic mandate for a great deal of time and tax-payer money to be spent on more bureaucracy than valid reading instruction or reading opportunities for students. More high-stakes testing (which distorts what counts as reading), greater stigmas and misguided demands on vulnerable populations of students, more data collecting and analysis (without regard for the quality of that data), more prescriptions and mandates for teachers that result in less effective reading instruction—this in a nutshell is why Read to Succeed is a waste of time and money as well as a fraud in terms of addressing or improving reading in the state.
  • What really is going on—the politics that trumps reading? Read to Succeed has been exposed as legislation more dedicated to political viability (the public loves grade retention, and remains naive about high-stakes testing) than funding and supporting public education or teacher professionalism and autonomy. Read to Succeed is a political mirage, generating political capital at the expense of student achievement (see also Florida).
  • What are the negative lessons so far of Read to Succeed? (1) Stop mimicking the politics-of-the-day from other states, (2) reject education policy grounded in high-stakes testing and punishment (grade retention), (3) resists political agendas and embrace research and educational expertise , and (4) stop isolating political attention on schools as if they are not subsets of and influenced by larger and more powerful social realities such as poverty and inequity.
  • What should SC be committed to instead? Most importantly, political leadership and the public in the state must admit that social policy is the first line of educational policy; SC needs to address historical pockets of poverty in the state often linked to racism and generational inequity. This big picture failure of political leadership, however, does not mean there is nothing we can do in our schools concerning reading. Schools also must be reformed to end the inequities they often reflect and perpetuate—tracking, teacher assignments, school funding, experimentation (schools choice and charter schools, for example) that refuses to address directly public school reform. Finally, reading instruction can and should be reformed to include the following: much lower student/teacher ratios to facilitate effective instruction; guaranteeing student access to books and reading in their homes, communities, and schools; creating and supporting teacher professionalism and autonomy in terms of strong foundations in high-quality reading instruction not driven by raising test scores; patience for student growth in reading that rejects the flawed (and false) crisis response to third-grade literacy; and a robust campaign to inform better the public and parents about effective reading instruction, healthy student growth in reading, and how educational outcomes are more often than not a reflection of society and community affluence, not school or teacher quality.

Read to Succeed is yet another story about political motivation coupled with the good intentions of those charged with implementing truly flawed policy (see No Child Left Behind and the current Every Student Succeeds Act).

Good intentions are never enough, and good intentions can never overcome political negligence.

Since we remain enamored by ranking, let’s confront a very ugly fact: SC ranks first (or at least at the top) in political negligence, and Read to Succeed is just one more lesson in that embarrassing reality, one that has bitter consequences for the most vulnerable children in the state.