Standards, Testing, and Accountability: A Failed Experiment

James Alexander, Ph.D., Professor – It seems as if Americans are constantly bombarded by reports of doom related to our educational system. A recent documentary, Waiting for Superman, has highlighted the disturbing and sad situations in our schools.

The documentary and most other commentaries on schools and schooling—as well as laws and funding—are based on the notion that somehow teachers are the root cause of the problems facing U.S. schools. The idea seems to be that we need to get rid of a whole bunch of lazy, incompetent teachers.

I have a problem with that notion. I have trained pre-service teachers for nearly twenty years. When I look at my students and work with them as student teachers, they certainly do not strike me as incompetent or lazy. Instead, the entire standards/ testing/ accountability movement needs to be scraped. It doesn’t need to be tweaked; we’ve been tweaking for at least thirty-five years. We don’t need a different test to use with kids. We have plenty of those right now and already waste considerable instructional time in testing and test preparation. The whole approach has been weighed and measured and found wanting.

At best, student achievement is a mixed bag. It involves both home and school factors. Three variables: socioeconomic status, time spent on homework, and level of parental involvement deal with home variables and are essential variables in student achievement. An Educational Testing Service report stated that the home environment is as important in influencing what goes on in school as in-school factors. A study by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company found that 97% of students who earned mostly A’s and B’s on their report cards reported that their parents encouraged them to do well in school. Forty-nine percent of students earning “C’s” received little encouragement.

Nor can the impact of media on children be overlooked. Jane Healy has recounted how TV watching adversely impacts children in schools. This is especially true when it comes to a child’s ability to maintain attention—something school requires. A more modern critique related to computer usage, reading, and attention has been offered by Nicholas Carr with similar conclusions. Sherry Turkle addresses the ways that social networking has changed the culture of children and adults. Surely, a discussion of societal change must include the impact of technology.

Approximately 50 percent of our proclivities are genetic in nature. That is not so much of a concern to us—the remaining 50 percent is quite adequate to make a huge difference in student learning. About half of school-to-school variance in achievement relates to out-of-school factors. Dan Goldhaber, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, points out there has been a continuous stream of research indicating the socioeconomic background is the most important factor in student achievement.

The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice is emphatic. Out-of-school factors related to poverty are the major cause of the achievement gap that exists between poor students and the rest of the student population. This contrasts with current educational/government opinions placing student failure squarely on the shoulders of schools and teachers.

It’s true that every child deserves an excellent teacher. Yet, Goldhaber and colleagues have discovered that around 9 percent of variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics. About 60 percent of variation is explainable by individual student characteristics, family characteristics, and such variables. All school input combined (teacher quality, class variables, etc.) account for approximately 21 percent of student outcomes.

Judith Harris convincingly demonstrates that a great deal of the outcomes of children’s lives come from the peer group and society. This theory is not without its distracters. It defies the conventional wisdom and annoys those who have long held to the prominence of parental nurture in determining outcomes for children. When it comes to school, in like manner, it is clear that out-of-school variables such as the percentage of children living with only one parent, the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month, the percentage of children age 5 or younger whose caregivers fail to read to them daily and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of television daily are at high risk of school failure.

I propose that the problems in our schools are not predominantly due to lazy, ineffective teachers. Much of what happens in terms of children’s achievement cannot be pinned on what happens in schools. Further, the idea of “cleaning up Dodge” is misguided and foolish. What is needed is a great discussion of where societal and cultural values have taken a wrong turn. In short, the accountability/testing/standards approach is irredeemable. It is broken beyond repair. Educational problems are largely societal in nature. Societies can assess themselves and they can change. Of that I am certain.

Diane Ravitch was long a favorite of the conservatives. She served in the Education Department of the George H. W. Bush administration. She was later a staunch supporter of No Child Left Behind. Recently, she has undergone a bit of a conversion as she has reviewed the data of reform. She points out that charter schools are often more hype than reality. Even when they do succeed (usually they do not), much success can be contributed to the dogged determination of students and parents.

So, I repeat, the entire enterprise is flawed. No one can fault standards as the basis of a curriculum guide. Beyond that standards, testing, and accountability form a devastating trio. It simply cannot be decreed that all students will be on grade level by a certain date (2014). It doesn’t work that way. It leaves teachers anxious and demoralized. It does the same for kids. What we need is not more tests and standards and accountability but, rather, a great societal turning.

James Alexander, Ph.D., Professor Kentucky Wesleyan College


  1. Randy Glover

    Dr. Alexander,
    Thank you, Thank you. Thank you. We have been waiting for the voice of reason during this current inane educational ‘reform’ debate. As teachers, our heads have been exploding all over the U.S. listening to those who have never taught lecture us on the problems we ‘incompetent’ teachers have been creating.

  2. Teacher With A Brain

    Many thanks. It is difficult to quantify the %age each of the many factors contributes to achievement. I suspect the 9% figure is a good estimate.

    We rant and rave about our dreadful American schools, and you would think that other nations get EVERY student proficient at grade level, and this is simply not true. Even Singapore does not succeed with every student, though more students may achieve standards of proficiency.

    Nations that fall within the Confucian Cultural Circle tend to produce high scoring students, however their culture emphasizes hard work, family “values” (the real ones) and respecting parents and teachers.

    Look around at our society to glean what we, Americans, value. Generally the behavior of our youth is a good indicator of our cultural values, in general, as is our media. We simply do not emphasize working hard and giving respect here.

    Our teachers are not the ultimate cause of every social ailment from which we suffer. Thanks for the encouraging article. I’d like to see this as an op ed in newspapers around the country to counter the “Waiting for Superman” hysteria.

  3. Dick Schutz

    And just how do you propose to effect, “a great societal turning,” Professor Alexander? How long do you expect this to take and what do you suggest we do differently while the “turning” is taking place?

  4. Joe Nathan

    While tests are no panacea, this professor helps illustrate why many young people from low income families do not succeed. Expectations from some educators are too low. All over the nation we have outstanding examples of schools and districts producing terrific results with students from low income families. There are great teachers in district and charter public schools; there are great district and charter public schools. We need to learn from them.

    • tired teacher

      the problem is tied to low income, but it isn’t low income. The problem is that a majority of parents in these “low income” situations do not participate at the levels required for their students to succeed.

      I don’t want to say why, some dont’ care, some are trying to hard to make ends meet and aren’t able, but the reality is when students don’t succeed a lot of it has to do with support from home, which the professor quantified in his article.

      what your saying is that he is wrong because there are schools (which i am assuming you mean charter) that succeed with low income students. and that is the rub, those may be low income students but they are highly involved parents. so those students are succeeding because they come from families that are putting in the required effort.

      after all, they had to look in to getting into the lottery for the charter school.

      that is a sample bias you are using to draw incorrect conclusions.

  5. Tunya Audain

    Fed-up With The Ravitch Excuses Bandwagon

    It was because of the “theory” that teachers and schools had little effect on achievement – the theory said it was the “handicap” of parental background that pulled down scores – that a Harvard team under Ron Edmonds went searching for principles of successful schools. Considerable evidence-based research helped shape the famous EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS CHECKLIST.

    Why do the naysayers such as Ravitch and Alexander persist in their progressive dumbing-down agenda? Why?

    Dr. Edmonds’ observation rings loud and clear today as it did over 30 years ago:

    ‘We can whenever, and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need, in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

    These principles support the comment from Joe Nathan below.

    ___ 1. Instructional Leadership. Principal is an effective communicator (with staff, parents, students, school boards), an effective supervisor, & the instructional leader in the school
    ___ 2. Focused School Mission. General consensus by the school community (staff, parents, students ) on goals, priorities, assessment, accountability. The mission statement is specified and reviewed periodically.
    ___ 3. Orderly Environment. Purposeful atmosphere, not oppressive, and is conducive to teaching and learning.
    ___ 4.High Expectations. Demonstrated high expectations not only for all students but for staff as well. The belief is that students are capable and able to achieve, that teachers are capable and not powerless to make a difference.
    ___ 5. Mastery of Basic Skills. In particular, basic reading, writing and math skills are emphasized with back-up alternatives available for students with special learning needs.
    ___ 6. Frequent Monitoring of Results. Means exist to monitor student progress in relationship to instructional objectives (and results can be easily conveyed to parents).
    ___ Means to monitor teacher effectiveness
    ___ A system of monitoring school goals
    ___ 7. Meaningful Parent Involvement. Parents are kept well-informed and there is ample opportunity for them to keep in touch with their child’s progress. They are consulted for feedback about the school and proposed changes. Parent-initiated contact with the school is encouraged.
    ___* 8. Avoidance of Pitfalls. Up-to-date awareness of good educational practice plus retaining currency in the field concerning promising and discredited practices.

    *Most “effective schools studies” repeat the first 7 points. But, Edmonds’ original work stressed “one of the cardinal characteristics of effective schools is that they are as anxious to avoid things that don’t work as they are committed to implement things that do.”

  6. Clay Forsberg

    When are we going to end this blame game. The reformers blaming the teachers and pushing charter schools on one side – and on the other, the education establishment circling the wagons and blaming the parents and the environment.

    The blame lies on both sides and the solution has to take this into account. More political blabber does nothing but prolong the disarray. Educational success is dependent on student engagement – where ever it comes from. Teachers have to be engaged in their work and every effort has be made to help them. If they aren’t – get rid of them, regardless of tenure.

    But parents can’t be given a free pass. They are also part of the engagement process. And they have to realize that education outside the classroom is probably more important than education in the classroom. Teachers may not like this, but it’s reality. Teachers hold a back seat to parents, peers and other outside influences in the learning process.

    If there is a cooperative effort between the two parties focusing on each individual student … the student will benefit. This should start with parent/teacher conferences. Use them as planning sessions – back and forth communications. Too often parents turn over the schooling function of their children to teachers, not realizing they, as parents, are are the biggest factor of success of their children. The blame for this cuts both ways. The parent has to take this responsibility and the teacher has to be willing and accommodating in this realization.

    It’s time for a new dialogue. Both parties have step up. We can bicker like five year olds fighting over a toy and we’ll get the same result – one that is unacceptable. Unfortunately the ones that get caught in the crossfire, are the ones that don’t have a say.

  7. Brencis

    This is one of the most profound commentaries I have read on American education in years. Society seeks every excuse possible but won’t take ownership of the devastating impact social ills have on children’s success.

  8. Tunya Audain

    Why DON’T Educators Feel Bad About Failing Students?

    Dr. Ron Edmonds, Harvard, of “Effective Schools” fame introduced the evidence-based Cardinal Principles for Effective Schools (1987) thus:

    ‘We can whenever, and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need, in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

    To me, that is the critical and dangerous question to ask: Why don’t educators feel bad about failing kids? Enough is known to make nearly all students succeed to the best of their ability in schools. Why is there such resistance? Are these children not of interest to us?

    Are other agendas more important?

    Is there some Machiavellian plot at hand? I do not bring Machiavelli into this frivolously or rhetorically. When “The Prince” became a popular document among intellectuals in the 16th Century, a counter booklet came out shortly after questioning the precepts formulated. It was Etienne de la Boetie who agonized over the central question of why a tyrant could get away with totalitarianism, deceit, brute force and bribes. La Boetie’s treatise was variously called, The Politics of Obedience, The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, or The Will to Bondage. To counsel those who suffered under such a regime, or to counter those who thrived in service to such tyranny, la Boetie advised massive civil disobedience and withdrawal. Easier said than done and his treatise remains an ill-read, ill-understood, ill-applied document to this day.

    What I’m trying to show is that a good response, a well articulated rejoinder, can result from poor or objectionable prevailing theory.

    This brings me back to Ron Edmonds. He and his Harvard team would never have pursued their research if it wasn’t to counter the “research” by James Coleman in 1960’s which claimed socio-economic status accounted for educational differences – “research” which Edmonds intuitively felt was wrong.

    Thus from masses of research data he was able to codify the 8 cardinal principles of effective education. Schools that adopt these proven principles claim good achievement. Others dispute these principles and resist the practices recommended. Often, resistance may be based on negativity to just one principle, e.g. parent engagement, or mastery of basic skills. What I will ask again is this: Are these proven principles really faulty or are they being resisted for some other reason? As a parent and grandparent I see them as profoundly convincing! I am frustrated that they are not embraced by all schools, public and private.

    I again ask: Why don’t educators feel badly or ashamed from not applying these principles? Why are they continuing to mis-instruct?

    I have some scary speculations:

    ___ a) The education fraternity (including academia) is aiming at societal cultural wholesale change?
    ___ b) A cultural transformation will result in people being peer-dependent collectivists – extinguishing individual instincts?
    ___ c) Small cadres of elite intellectual socialists will govern a domesticated, socialized, state-supported mass?
    ___ d) Individual freedom will become a faint memory?

    I have been active in the home education movement and am ever grateful that this is one haven, one escape to sanity, which is still available to those who fear state totalitarianism. One of the most active pioneers was John Holt who made this discerning observation:

    “Today freedom has different enemies. It must be fought for in different ways. It will take very different qualities of mind and heart to save it.” – John Holt

    In face of the ever more sophisticated social engineering techniques being used by educators, politicians, media and other people-shapers, I would like to see some serious discussion on this topic and serious development of countermeasures. Threats to our freedoms are no longer just from tanks and bombs – they are from obligating massification forces all around us.

    Can we discuss Edmonds’ statement and Holt’s statement in face of these intensifying efforts from people who just don’t get the message from a movie such as “Waiting for Superman” which strikes a chord with parents and public but engenders such discord and defensiveness from educators?

  9. Doug

    Nobody believes that nonsense Tunya. Try it some time.

  10. Joe Nathan

    Not sure what “nonsense” Doug is referring to. Edmonds’ followed the research – showing there are some great district public schools. Having spent 40 years as an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, reseacher and advocate, I agree with him. And tired teacher – I was referring to some great district & charter public schools. Those of you making excuses are helping drive lots of people out of district public schools.

    • tired teacher

      making excuses? what are you doing? you’re sitting here complaining on the internet about something you think you understand. i’m in a classroom all day long working my tail off to try and teach every kid that comes through my door.

      meanwhile i have to listen to every public figure who thinks they understand education rip into my profession and like you just did my dedication, ability and passion.

      and instead of just attacking my comment, why don’t you provide evidence to prove my assertation incorrect. because there is a direct correlation between the dedication of the parents toward their child’s education and the child’s ability to succeed in school.

  11. Farah Azadeh

    As a young, some-what-new teacher, I appreciate the standards. I believe that they are a benefit to the teachers, parents, and students. On the other hand, I do not agree with the standardized exams we force on our schools. Not only does it make the whole learning experience boring but it also makes it seem like all we want our children to learn is how to pass a test.

    Last year I taught adult basic education, and I can say with confidence that the parents’ participation in a student’s schooling is crucial. Ninety percent of my students who dropped out of high school report that their parent(s) never cared, never encouraged, and never participated in their lives.

    Change is good for all of us.

  12. L

    Parents are the root problem, inconjuntion with spinless administration.
    Unions have virtualy no power

  13. Staff Reporter

    Here’s Greenspan take on the mess we are in. Considering the breakdown of the family and the unions un-willingness to give up the golden-bennies welcome to the New America. Forget the blame and finger-pointing we are in deep trouble.

    “As I watch what’s going on, we have to remember that over the next 10 years, we’re going to find that the baby boom generation – highly skilled, highly educated – is going to fade from the scene,” Greenspan said. “It’s going to be replaced by a generation who are now in school and creating grades which don’t make us look very good in the international spectrum.”

    And when that happens Greenspan explained, that generation won’t be able to grow an economy at a pace needed to fund the entitlement programs which we have in place.

    “This means we are probably dealing with an economy which isn’t growing fast enough or creating much real resources to fund the entitlement programs that we have already made,” Greenspan continued. “I consider the issue of cutting back spending as essentially which is something which is new. I don’t think we could afford it in the first place. So we’re merely canceling something which didn’t exist.”

    Read more:

  14. Doug

    If you are not a teacher you just have no clue whatsoever.

  15. Concerned Teacher

    If/when/as funding existing programs becomes problematic, then we make the changes we HAVE to make, when we HAVE to make them. Something as simple as delaying the age at which pensions can be collected, because folks are living longer, makes sense to me. We do not, however, favor the ultra-wealthy by cutting their taxes, subsidizing corporations, and increasing the burden on the middle and lower classes. This is what is going on here today in this country. This is unethical.

    However, as to the economy growing, please open your eyes and take a look. We have, today, corporations making unprecedented profits. Are they investing some of the profits back into our economy? No. They are cutting wages, and cutting and off-shoring jobs. Worse, these companies are paying no income taxes, and some are receiving government subsidies and so forth in the $millions. Why do we pay companies money to behave this way? These corporations are unAmerican. Their behavior is despicable.

    Yesterday I read about an investment advisor who usually earns over $500,000 per year. Last year was a lean year for him, and he earned a little over $200,000 and paid a total of 9% federal income tax. Our, my husband and I, had a combined income of about the same (he is an engineer, and I work lots of extra jobs to boost my earnings to help pay for 2 children in college), and we easily paid 20some% of our income to the federal government.

    Why do we allow a tax system that favors the wealthy by allowing them to be taxed on most of their income as capital gains, while middle class working folks who contribute products and bona fide services are taxed at a higher rate because their income is through wages, largely, and not commissions, dividends and interest?

    The Republicans are protecting the right of a small percentage of ultra wealthy to effectively shelter most of their income, while the folks who do much of the day-to-day work are penalized and required to pay a much higher tax rate. If we simply required the wealthy to pay most of their income tax at the higher rate (as we do), the difference would be notable.

    We continue to punish the wage earners who form the backbone of our country and economy with much higher taxes than the wealthy, who are simply not pumping much of their wealth back into our economy and in some cases really producing nothing of any value.

    Finally, we continue to fund expensive and aggressive foreign wars, but where is the move to reduce spending in this arena, which is a much larger portion of our budget?

    Lastly, our government sponsored retirement programs are NOT part of the general fund. Social security is a separate fund, as is my California State Teacher’s Retirement.

  16. Doug

    Reforms that do not produce higher achievement:

    Merit pay, charters, vouchers, mayoral control, teacher bashing, union bashing, standardized testing,teacher testing linked to test scores.

    Reforms that DO produce higher achievement:

    Early Childhood Education, professional after school tutorial, summer school, smaller classes, quality teacher training, high teacher moral, elimination of low birthweight in babies,proper nutrition for the poor, better quality housing, community health clinics linked to schools.

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    I know While tests are no panacea, this professor helps illustrate why many young people from low income families do not succeed. Expectations from some educators are too low.

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  20. A Failed Experiment « marklwrightdotcom

    [...] Standards, Testing, and Accountability: A Failed Experiment | It seems as if Americans are constantly bombarded by reports of doom related to our educational system. A recent documentary, Waiting for Superman, has highlighted the disturbing and sad situations in our schools. [...]

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April 10th, 2011

James Alexander, Ph.D. Contributor

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