Monthly Archives: February 2023

The Problems with Accountability

For years, I’ve rolled my eyes at all the earnest people talking about student learning, particularly in high school. Like the occasional think pieces on credit recovery, questioning them as an effective tool for student learning. I mean, my lord.

In fact, it was one of those think pieces on credit recovery by Nat Malkus that actually led to this article, which I started years ago and just found in my draft folder. I’d been trying to figure out a way to express my admittedly cynical hilarity at these, but had a hard time figuring out how to start until this sentence caught my eye:

“Education reform in recent decades has focused on raising standards, pushing more students to reach them…”

Wait, what?

Education reform in recent decades insisted that ALL students MUST reach them, and they must meet them by the same levels in all SES, racial, and educational categories.  NCLB went so far as to demand that all students must be above average.

But leave that aside for the moment. Malkus is still wrong. The standards movement wasn’t about pushing students. Standards are about pushing schools.

Federal and state governments don’t hold students responsible for failing to meet goals. It’s the school that lose control and funding.

Education policies don’t hold students accountable for their own low  test scores.

This seems obvious, trite even. Naturally the students can’t be blamed for the schools’ many  failures!

But that’s not why we don’t hold students accountable.

Consider the only time in recent education history that students faced actual accountability for their own failure to meet the mandated levels of achievement.

I speak, of course, of the high school graduation test.

Refusing to grant high school diplomas to those who failed the test was a reform that at its height was implemented by 27 states.

Keep in mind that these high school graduation tests didn’t actually assess what we’d like to call high school knowledge. My own state required middle school math and some basic grammar, and since all states had upwards of 90% pass rates, it’s a safe bet that all states set competency at roughly the 8th grade level. These tests nonetheless posed a tremendous challenge for small chunks of the population with the usual suspects of race playing their usual part, and thousands of students never passed. As Matt Barnum’s brief history of the exit exam fad discusses, the research on exit exams revealed reduced graduation rates and no increase in proficiency or college attendance. It’s all bad news.

Results: Most states eliminated their efforts in the mid-teens after barely a decade of traying. A few created  several workarounds to allow graduation for those who fail the tests.

That’s it. That’s the only time America has in any way held individual k-12 student advancement hostage to their tested proficiency. And boyoboy when states backed away, they really backed away. California and Georgia went back and handed out retroactive diplomas to anyone who hadn’t been able to pass the test.

When Malkus says that education reform pushed “more students” to meet “raised standards”….well, he misspoke. Education reform created higher standards and demanded that schools provide evidence that students met those standards, but at no point penalized students for failing to meet the standards by general assessment.

Here, in fact, is what happened during the education reform heyday: students were given no choice but to take demanding courses. They couldn’t opt out of Algebra 2. They couldn’t take composition instead of writing critical essays on Shakespearean plays. Schools couldn’t place students who counted on their fingers into a basic math course, or give reading instruction to kids reading at third grade level. They had to put freshmen in “college prep” courses.

Despite this ruthless curriculum restriction, the only attempt at enforcing student accountability gave passing scores for knowing middle school math and the proper use of capitalization. Meanwhile, schools were criticized and often penalized for not graduating enough students who the states required to take increasingly advanced courses to get those diplomas.

What did they think would happen?

Transcripts and grades have been fraudulent for decades, even without reaching the depths of the Maspeth scandal.

I’ve often discussed this reality, of course. Teachers ignore universal standards and set their grading policies to the average ability of their students.  In cases where teacher rigor is too much for their students, these teachers either adjust or don’t last long at that particular job.

But consider how this reality plays out in the context of the aforementioned credit recovery system. If schools give passing grades based on the average student ability, credit recovery shouldn’t be necessary.

It’s not as if teachers are out there holding all their students to the expected standards. Go seek out the million stories bewailing the low student test scores accompanying grade inflation going back decades. Failing a single class doesn’t lead to credit recovery. Students can take a class two or even three times and still be on track to graduate, as happens quite a bit in math. Or they can take the expensive version of credit recovery known as summer school, where students exchange seat time for a certain pass.

And yet with all the lowered standards, all the multiple opportunities, all the efforts, there are kids who still can’t get their ass to school each day, or get to school and treat it as social hour, or cut classes so often they can’t get a passing grade even if the teacher wants to give it because they’ve missed the minimum number of instructional hours (look for states to end this requirement).

These are the students for whom online credit recovery is designed. Can schools get them into a classroom to sit still long enough to click through courses? And, as any principal will tell you, there are students who can’t even manage this much. But many can, and so yet one more selection criteria emerges–students who fuck around endlessly but straighten up enough to click through credit recovery and students who continue to fuck around endlessly.

Low ability students in schools with lots of low ability students generally pass if they want to. Most will pass the first time, but some will either screw up or get stuck with a teacher whose standards are higher than they  can deliver. Then they’ll take the course again, or go to summer school. Learning has little to do with it. Maybe 1 in 100 kids who retake a course says “Yeah, I learned a lot.” The vast majority jumped through the hoops they needed. A depressing number of students miss, jump, pass, miss, jump, pass all the way through high school.

Credit recovery isn’t for kids who didn’t learn. Credit recovery is for the kids who dodge all of the schools’ expert techniques at convincing students to do enough work to get a passing grade.

Credit recovery is just one part of a massive, expensive endeavor to shepherd unwilling students through school long enough to give them a diploma. Worrying about whether or not they are learning really misses the point. Worrying about what students learn in a world determined to pretend all students can learn the same subjects is likewise missing the point.

Any effort to improve education has to hold students accountable. But in order to hold them accountable they have to be given choices.

Schools do need to teach their students. But in order to hold schools accountable, they need to be able to accurately place students based on their ability and interest to help them progress.

All sides of the education debate refuse to acknowledge this.  They refuse to acknowledge ability and motivation. They refuse to acknowledge that low student ability isn’t a moral failing: not the student’s, the teacher’s, or the school’s. That’s why all their efforts will fail–including the ridiculous parent choice initiatives libertarians and choice folks are currently celebrating. That’s why the problem is now getting worse, with colleges abandoning their previous metrics of student accountability (test score admissions and remediation).

I don’t know what the answer is. The 80s is the last time our country gave students choice and schools the right to place. It was roundly rejected in the 90s by lawsuits against tracking and education reform’s demand that “all students succeed”.

I’ve been depressed by educational changes made post-pandemic. The left is pretending all kids are traumatized, the right is convinced that all parents share the rage of the roughly 15% who wanted in-person education but didn’t get it. The left is eradicating standards for college, the right is busy giving illegal immigrants $7K to homeschool their kids, and celebrating grifters who open voucher schools. Things start to feel grim.

Then I look at my kids and remind myself that the real miracle is how many kids do learn. How schools still do the best job imaginable at finding smart kids and helping them out. How despite all the insane rhetoric coming from all sides, most of us in school–students, teachers, and administrators–get the job done of helping kids navigate their way through childhood to meaningful adulthood.

And I feel better.