How to improve our public schools? Many policymakers argue that we can start by holding students, teachers, schools, and school districts accountable for student performance. This approach may sound perfectly reasonable—but it has the education profession up in arms. By Hoover fellow Diane Ravitch.
Nowadays, one thinks of testing and accountability as twins in education; tests, it is assumed, produce the data on which accountability for results are based. A survey of the history of American education, however, reveals that although testing has been a staple in American public education since the nineteenth century, the idea of accountability—holding not only students but teachers, schools, even school districts accountable for student performance—is a more contemporary invention. A long-standing and fundamental conflict between the education profession and laypeople as to the purpose and uses of testing may explain why accountability does not share testing’s long pedigree. It may also help to explain much of the controversy that surrounds testing and accountability in our schools today.
Nineteenth-century schools tested their students to see if they had mastered what they were taught, and students who didn’t pass the tests were “left back.” Schoolteachers in the nineteenth century were often required to pass a test of their knowledge and could be interviewed by members of the local school board (which usually included a member of the clergy) to make sure they harbored no unconventional views or unusual religious beliefs. But once they were accepted for service, teachers faced no more tests of their suitability or capacity. If students failed to learn, it was the students’ fault.
High school in those days was generally understood to be for those who could handle the work; at the end of the nineteenth century, this meant fewer than one of every ten adolescents. The even smaller number of students who wanted to go to college had to prepare themselves for college-level work. Although many colleges at the time accepted anyone who applied, the most prestigious, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, required students to pass specific admission examinations. In 1900, following complaints from school principals and headmasters about the difficulty of preparing students for different examinations for different colleges, the College Entrance Examination Board was created to prepare a single test for college admission. The “College Boards,” as they became known, published syllabi in different subjects; teachers taught the syllabus prepared for their subject, and students were examined on whether they had mastered it.
In the early years of the twentieth century, after the field of educational psychology was established, the design and administration of testing began to change. As a new discipline, educational psychology found a home in the new colleges of education, and most psychologists of education became engaged in the reform of educational testing.
The leading educational psychologist in the first half of the twentieth century—Edward L. Thorndike of Teachers College, Columbia University—was determined to demonstrate that education could become an exact science. But although he applied rigorous scientific methods in order to perfect tests as a measure of academic performance, Thorndike had little interest in using them for purposes of accountability. Like other Progressives of his time, he believed that education was a function of the state and that its administration should be a professional matter in which public oversight was strictly limited. His work on testing, therefore, was intended to strengthen the profession, leaving noneducators with little reason to become involved in the operation of public schools.
Led by psychologists such as Thorndike, the testing movement evolved as an integral part of the Progressive education movement. Progressivism gained ideological dominance of the profession in the 1930s and 1940s because of its association with progress, science, and reform, as well as its popularity among professors of education. Professional educators embraced testing because it seemed to place education on a scientific plane, where decisions could be made on a professional basis and could withstand the entreaties of parents. Progressive educators also embraced efforts to make schools less academic and more amenable to children who were not interested in traditional schooling.
As these Progressive ideas took hold, schools were encouraged to promote children each year regardless of their performance—a practice that came to be known as social promotion. At one level, this was a response to the Depression; it was intended to keep young people in school and out of the job market. But at another level, social promotion was championed by Progressive educators who were concerned about the effects of retention and failure on the psychological well-being of the child. These social promotion advocates insisted that schools should put less emphasis on subject matter, discipline, and grades and more emphasis on children’s social adjustment.
Thus, although testing was regularly used in the schools, there was no belief within the profession that tests should be used to hold anyone accountable. The spread of social promotion meant that students would not be held accountable for their performance in school, a complete turnaround from nineteenth-century practices. And this turnaround happened almost entirely without public participation, facilitated instead by the profession’s belief that the practice of education was strictly a professional matter that need not involve members of the public other than as taxpayers.
Pushing for Accountability
Interest in accountability may be traced to the landmark 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity, known as the Coleman report for its lead author, sociologist James Coleman. Written as a study to compare the distribution of resources and opportunities among children of different races, the Coleman report also examined differences in achievement scores, or outcomes. The study was significant for many reasons, one of which was its shift in focus from inputs to results, which followed the authors’ decision to examine how school resources affected achievement.
In the wake of this report—although professional educators continued to believe that any inadequacies in the schools could be resolved with additional resources—policymakers, public officials, community activists, and parents started to conclude that many of the problems were structural consequences of the bureaucratic (read: professional) system of public education and could only be addressed by market competition or structural changes.
This shift in focus from inputs (resources) to outputs (results) was facilitated by the increasing availability of test scores. The establishment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1970 provided cumulative new data and trend lines to document the educational achievement of American students. Another source of information about student achievement was derived from international tests of mathematics and science, tests in which American eighth and twelfth graders often performed poorly.
As more and more information accumulated about student performance, elected officials came under pressure to “do something” about low student achievement. Governors, in particular, took up the challenge. By the early 1980s, education was the single biggest budget item in every state, usually consuming 40 percent of a state’s expenditures. Some governors wanted to get education costs under their control, some wanted to make education spending more cost-effective, and most wanted to accomplish both. Many of them turned to business leaders as their natural allies in trying to improve their states’ complex and labor-intensive educational systems, and many incentive structures that worked to improve business performance were adapted to public education in an effort to improve school performance, such as transparency in budget reporting, resources, operations, and results. In short, elected officials were expecting to see accountability for performance.
This is where we have seen a split occur over the past generation between professional educators and the public officials who control the purse strings. In effect, there are two competing paradigms of education reform at work simultaneously and not always harmoniously. Professional educators and their allies in higher education continue to focus on inputs (resources for reducing class size, increasing teachers’ salaries, and expanding teacher training, for example), whereas policymakers representing the public seek accountability for results.
These two competing paradigms are in constant tension, with first one and then the other gaining brief advantage. Policymakers have sought accountability for students, teachers, schools, and school districts. Professional educators have largely resisted these pressures. The grounds for their resistance have varied, depending on the issue, but in every instance the educators have sought to water down accountability and maintain professional discretion. Consider the following examples:
• Policymakers want tests to have stakes for test takers attached to them so that students will exert greater effort to pass them. Professional educators (with some notable exceptions) seek to soften and eliminate any stakes for students. The most notable exception to this generalization was Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers until his death in 1996. Shanker advocated standards, testing, and stakes, and his union has mainly followed his line, whereas the larger teachers unions, the National Education Association, and other education organizations have maintained their strong objections.
• Policymakers have endorsed the standards-and-testing approach, in which states describe what students are expected to learn, then test to see whether they have. Professional educators have gone along with this strategy—with varying degrees of enthusiasm—but with a chorus that warns about the dangers of “teaching to the test” or “narrowing the curriculum.”
• Policymakers want to use test results to reward teachers with merit pay. Professional educators vigorously reject this as a breach of professionalism that will undermine morale.
• Policymakers enacted laws in nearly 40 states to permit the creation of public charter schools. Educators were skeptical and, in some cases, openly objected to what they saw as a diversion of public funds to quasi-public schools.
• Policymakers have supported the use of contracting to allow private companies to manage schools. Educators have seen this move as a threat to public education and, in some cases, have openly fought against rewarding contracts to for-profit companies.
• Policymakers have pushed for the use of school report cards, so that parents can find out how their children’s schools are doing, and for state intervention or takeover for schools that consistently fail to perform. Educators continue to insist that the root problem of school failure is lack of resources.
It is fair to say that policymakers’ pressure for accountability has not run into a brick wall of resistance but a bowl of Jell-O instead, where demands for accountability are eventually but inevitably transformed into demands for more resources. Educators want to improve student performance, but to do so they must have higher salaries, smaller class sizes, more training, and so on.
The starkest illustration of this can be found in Massachusetts, which passed an ambitious school reform law in 1993 that pledged an extra $1 billion a year for the schools with the understanding that students would be expected to pass state examinations for high school graduation by 2003. The state put up the money as promised, but by 2000 many educators were in open revolt against the state testing program, with the state’s teachers union even running an expensive advertising campaign and sponsoring legislation to roll back implementation of the state graduation tests.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the debate over standards and accountability is that the states that have persisted in this strategy over time have seen steady improvement in student performance. North Carolina, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia all saw strong achievement gains for their students, both on state tests and on the regular tests administered by NAEP. The gains were especially significant for black and Hispanic students, whose performance in all states lagged far behind their white and Asian peers.
It is also intriguing that all this jousting over the fate of accountability programs took place with another version of accountability lurking on the sidelines: vouchers. Vouchers are a form of accountability because they offer parents the opportunity to remove their children from an institution that does not satisfy them—an alarming premise for professionals whose livelihood depends on the survival of that institution. Vouchers directly challenge the supremacy of the state system of public education, so it is hardly surprising that spokespeople for public education would vigorously attack them.
In all areas having to do with accountability in our schools, clashes will continue between the policymakers who seek it and the educators who seek to deflect it. We can expect to see continued demands for pumping more resources into education, which to some extent is reasonable: Teacher salaries should be high enough to attract well-educated college graduates into the classroom; school facilities should be ample; school supplies should be adequate to students’ needs; and teachers should get continuing education to stay abreast of improved methods and knowledge.
We can also expect to see continued demands for improved performance in our schools. The public will continue to insist that students should be able to read, write, use mathematics, and be generally well prepared for further education or for technical jobs when they graduate from high school.
If large numbers of students continue to be poorly prepared, the public is likely to conclude either that a generation of school reform has failed or that the reforms to date have been too timid. If that should happen, then interest in accountability through market reforms—that is, vouchers—is likely to have greater public support than it has until now, especially in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the existing school voucher program in Cleveland.
Albert Shanker presciently recognized that the failure of standards-based reforms might pave the way for market-based reforms. His premature death, however, canceled out the one prominent voice among professional educators who was ready to lead a campaign in support of a strategy of standards, testing, and accountability.
American education, in the near term at least, will therefore continue to be driven by the two paradigms: the professional education paradigm, which deeply believes that the profession should be insulated from public pressure for accountability and which is deeply suspicious of the intervention of policymakers, and the policymaker paradigm, which insists that the public school system be subject to incentives and sanctions based on its performance. How this conflict is resolved will determine the future of American education.
Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and was one of the charter members of Hoover's Koret Task Force on K–12 Education (1999–2008). She is also a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ravitch was assistant secretary of education responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education from 1991 to 1993. Among her many books are The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2003); Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform (2000); and The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980 (1983). A native of Houston, she is a graduate of the Houston public schools. She received a B.A. from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Adapted from the essay “Testing and Accountability, Historically Considered” in the Hoover Press book School Accountability, edited by Williamson M. Evers and Herbert J. Walberg.