Statement on Standards and Accountability in Public Education

Statement on Standards and Accountability in Public Education

I. Introduction

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) has a long history of advocacy on issues involving public schools beyond the agency's vigilance with respect to church-state separation. Recently, AJC's National Task Force on Public Education issued a statement, subsequently adopted by AJC's Board of Governors, in which it stated: "AJC believes there must be a rededication to public education on the national, community, and family levels so that public schools can fulfill their promise as democratic institutions and launching pads of opportunity."1

AJC now turns its attention to the "standards and accountability" movement, which has taken center stage in our nation's debate over how to ensure that all children receive an education that will prepare them for participation in the American workforce and in democratic society. In January 2001, President George W. Bush entered that debate when he released his education reform proposal No Child Left Behind, which calls for annual state assessments of students in reading and math, rewards and sanctions for student performance in states, districts, and schools, and an "escape hatch" allowing students in failing schools to transfer to higher performing public or private, including parochial, schools.2

II. The Issues

A. The Standards Movement

Starting with A Nation at Risk, the seminal report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983), there has been a growing sense that American children are falling behind their counterparts in other industrialized countries, especially in math, science, and technology, and that these differences are exacerbated over time. The results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (1995) and its follow-up report in 1999 appear to confirm this gap: although American fourth graders score near the top of the world in international comparisons in math and science, by the twelfth grade they fall into the bottom quartile.

An increased focus on measuring differences in performance among students of varied backgrounds and ethnicities, coupled with the needs of business and private interests for a more educated workforce, were the impetus for the standards movement of the 1980's and '90's. In 1988, the first federally funded testing program, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), was established, and in 1989, the first national goals in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography were set by the National Governors Association. The state measures of these standards are generally standardized tests, which are often norm-referenced (measuring students against a national or local norm group) and multiple-choice. They measure a student's achievement at one point in time.

Currently, forty-nine states (with the exception of Iowa) have state standards of student achievement in place, and it is estimated that twenty-nine states have exit exams for high school graduation. President Bush's plan demands from states "proof of achievement" in reading and math as measured in annual testing from grades three through eight.

B. High-Stakes Testing: Rewards and Sanctions for Student Performance

Although the impetus for higher standards came from the federal government, the development of standards, assessments to measure them, and rewards and sanctions for student and teacher performance have remained almost exclusively the domain of state officials. State rewards for improved student achievement on standardized tests include one-time bonuses paid to teachers above their regular salaries, and one-time, unrestricted payments to schools. Sanctions for poor student performance on standardized tests include the threat of losing accreditation or facing state takeover (e.g., Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia), "early warning" lists or the threat of academic probation (e.g., Illinois), and loss of per pupil funds through voucher programs (President Bush's proposal). Almost one-half of the states either rate schools publicly or identify low-performing schools (e.g., Colorado, Florida, New York and Texas), and eighteen states have legal authority to close, take over, or replace staff in schools deemed to be failing.

High-stakes tests represent one end of the accountability continuum. By definition, a high-stakes exam is an assessment in which student test scores are used to rank schools, reward or sanction teachers, or determine whether a student will be promoted or graduated. Currently, twenty-nine states administer statewide tests that have been used, or will be used by 2003, as conditions for high school graduation. However, in the face of legal challenges pointing to disparities in graduation rates of minorities and non-minorities as evidence that high-stakes testing violates federal anti-discrimination laws and constitutional due process protections, some states have begun to roll back the implementation dates of high-stakes tests or have changed the content of such tests.

High-stakes tests have serious implications for schools, teachers, and students. Teachers are now responsible for ensuring that all students perform well on high-stakes exams, especially in light of resulting rewards and sanctions for student behavior. If their students do not perform well, teachers and administrators face consequences ranging from losing pay to being fired. As a result, they have had to adapt their teaching to new test frameworks, including developing an understanding of working within time limits, understanding how to teach discrete subsets of skills, and understanding the implications of testing for students with special needs. Some argue that these pressures cause teachers to "teach to the test," thereby neglecting content areas not readily amenable to standardized testing. However, many state exams are now linked to state standards and curriculum and feature essays and short answer questions along with multiple-choice questions. These new types of questions require that students think more holistically instead of simply reciting facts.

C. Alternative Measures of Assessment

Most testing experts now believe that a single test, given to a student at a single point in time, does not accurately reflect the totality of what a student has learned. Instead, it is only a "snapshot" of a student's performance. Alternative measures of assessment, including portfolios (an accumulation of samples of a student's work, reflections on that work, and teacher comments) and other "performance-based" assessments (which require students to show what they can do by applying their knowledge to a particular situation) have gained ground in recent years as more comprehensive measures of students' abilities. Performance-based measures also may be fairer to new English Language Learners and students with special needs, since they rely less on reading comprehension skills and more on a student's ability to demonstrate understanding of discrete material. However, performance-based assessments can be expensive to develop and time-consuming to administer.

III. Recommendations

AJC believes there is a level of proficiency that students should attain before they are promoted within or graduated from public schools, and a well-conceived and fair testing program can be an important mechanism in ensuring that students have attained that level. The primary objective of standardized testing, however, should be to improve education, not to penalize schools, educators, or students. Although AJC believes it is important to identify failing schools so that they can be improved, we are skeptical of "make or break" devices. Moreover, in order to meet standards, schools need sufficient resources to support effective teaching and learning, including more, and better-qualified, and better-remunerated teachers, proven and effective early childhood education programs and smaller and better-equipped classes, and adequate and properly maintained facilities. Raising standards, and the evaluation of students and schools through testing, must not be seen as a substitute for public school reform. Indeed, holding students accountable for meeting higher standards without implementing school reforms required to raise achievement is unfair and counterproductive. Accordingly:

AJC believes that fairness must be at the core of any testing program. Standardized tests must test what has been taught. Moreover, attention needs to be paid to the impact of such testing on those students whose achievement may not be adequately demonstrated by their performance on tests, including immigrant and minority students and students with learning disabilities. It is critical that standardized tests, especially those with high stakes attached, be reliable, valid, fair, and free from cultural and gender bias. Each high-stakes test should be subjected to "a separate evaluation of the strengths and limitations of both the testing program and the test itself."3 Only professionally recognized testing companies should be permitted to develop high stakes tests and those companies should be monitored and held accountable for their efficacy and accuracy in creating and grading tests. Negative effects of high-stakes tests should be disclosed to policymakers and the public. Also, test results of schools and individual students should be reported accurately and expeditiously-within the year of administration-so that results can be used for immediate improvement in school systems.

AJC favors the use of a range of methods, including standardized tests and performance-based assessments, for evaluating whether students have learned fundamental skills, as well as factual information, and emphasizes that the goal of such evaluation should be an authentic assessment of what each student has learned. Because possessing a high school diploma is necessary to be a full participant in our society, students who do not pass high-stakes exams on the first occasion should be given additional opportunities to pass such tests and provided with additional opportunities for remediation focused on the knowledge and skills addressed by tests. Additional opportunities for remediation are particularly critical because studies have shown that students who are retained in school on account of failing high-stakes exams have lower rates of academic success and higher dropout rates. Alternative forms of assessment should be provided where there is "credible evidence that a test will not measure a student's true level of proficiency." Schools should be given some flexibility with respect to time frames in which they are required to implement standards, and states and districts should be sensitive to schools' individual reform plans when they are developing standards.

AJC believes that the quest for educational excellence is, unfortunately, very much a matter of money. Sufficient resources and support are necessary to meet high standards. Students should be given the materials, curriculum, technological resources and instruction necessary to succeed, and schools must be provided with sufficient resources to help students reach high standards. When judging schools' performance on high-stakes tests, policymakers should look not only at outputs (test scores), but also at inputs, including local, state, and federal funding for schools, teacher quality (years of experience and whether or not a teacher is fully certified), and parental involvement in schools.

Teachers and administrators should be held accountable for student performance, but AJC believes that there should be a range of responses to schools in which there is a high rate of failure on tests. Such responses should be graduated in severity, so that remediative assistance is provided to low performing schools. In addition, an analysis of the underlying reasons for a school's high rate of failure should be conducted by the appropriate authorities and test scores should not be the only factor in determining whether a school is "failing." Ultimately, AJC does not oppose "closing," i.e., reconstituting through the replacement of administrative, teaching, and support staff, those schools that fail to improve their performance within a reasonable time period.4 While AJC does support choice within the public school system, AJC does not, under any circumstances, support the provision of vouchers for students to attend non-public schools.

AJC is concerned that the tendency to emphasize standardized testing and its results may lead to "teaching to the test," i.e. students will receive instruction limited to the information within tested areas and will not receive sufficient knowledge and instruction in subjects beyond the scope of that which is tested. It is imperative that young people gain exposure to the arts and humanities, health and physical education, and to other areas not necessarily covered by testing. In some cases, the public schools are a student's only opportunity for such exposure. Furthermore, AJC is concerned that quality teachers will not be satisfied with such a limited professional experience and as a result will leave the teaching profession.

1 A copy of AJC's 2000 "Statement on Public Education," which contains recommendations concerning the problem of resource disparity (including the need for equitable school financing; qualified teachers; effective leadership; parental involvement; safe, clean and modern schools; before- and after-school programs; and early foundations for learning) and the need to focus on values and democracy, is attached for ease of reference.

2 These proposals, without the voucher provisions originally contained in the Bush plan, recently passed in the Senate and House of Representatives and are currently awaiting conference.

3 Many of AJC's recommendations are an endorsement of the position statement on high-stakes testing issued by the American Educational Research Association (AERA). The complete AERA statement can be found at

4 AJC takes note of plans such as the one adopted in Georgia, which requires that failing schools be closed after three years of attempted remediation.

Adopted by the Board of Governors on June 25, 2001.

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