What We Do With Data

Newly installed as the chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander is determined to shepherd through a reauthorization of the long-languishing Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Seeking to put some daylight between the new ESEA and its widely reviled rebranding as No Child Left Behind (NLCB), Alexander has convened hearings and solicited testimony on several key aspects of the bill. 

Among the most debated provisions is the NCLB requirement for annual statewide testing.  Currently, the law requires states to administer 17 tests – one each in math and literacy annually in grades 3 through 8 plus at least once in high school, as well as a science test once in elementary, middle, and high school.  But these tests are merely the tip of the iceberg.  Because of the high stakes attached to the federally-mandated tests – including stakes related to teacher licensure, performance pay, and school closures, among others – a new industry of test design and test preparation has sprung up to ensure students and teachers excel when it matters most.  As HGSE associate professor (and former senior advisor to Senator Alexander) Martin West noted in his recent Senate testimony, analyses that students are scheduled to spend a reasonable 1-3 percent of their time taking standardized tests almost certainly understate the reality and that “far too many schools devote excessive time to narrow test-preparation activities in an attempt to avoid federally mandated sanctions.”

Despite this concession, West recommended that the Senate panel preserve annual testing for several reasons:  it enables more precise measurements of school performance (thus preventing, say, schools from being falsely designated lower-performing when they serve more disadvantaged students); these more precise measures of school performance can be used to give parents better information when selecting schools; and by testing all students in every school each year, we can collect data about the relative performance of subgroups, for example by race or socioeconomic status.

Rather in spite of myself, I find these arguments convincing.  Were I emperor, I might even decree that we continue to require annual testing.  After all, the data we collect can and do tell sobering stories about equity, and we should not turn away from that.  On the contrary, these stories ought to be catalysts for action.  Where I differ with Professor West and others is in just what we – or more precisely, policymakers in a position to exert some influence – ought to do with the data we collect, what actions we should take.

Education policy debates expend a lot of bluster operationalizing the first two of West’s arguments – better performance measurement and better information sharing – but I think we ought to invest more energy focused on what data tell us about inequality and how to address it.  Specifically, I believe we need to start enacting new race- and class-conscious education policies.  Assuming that we find racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps troubling - which we should and which I believe most people do - we should move away from stubbornly colorblind education policies and embrace policies that take direct aim at racism, poverty, and the steady erosion of civil rights.  As UCLA’s Gary Orfield has observed, today’s yawning achievement gaps – illuminated with such clarity thanks in part to NCLB’s testing mandate – exist in a political context that has not enacted new civil rights legislation in over 50 years.

Upon signing the original ESEA in 1965 as part of his War on Poverty, President Lyndon Johnson said that the bill’s passage would help “bridge the gap between helplessness and hope” for the country’s most “educationally disadvantaged” children.  Given the persistent gaps that still exist, a longer or sturdier bridge is clearly needed. 

Testing does have a role to play in addressing poverty and racism.  It can make visible inconvenient and uncomfortable truths; it can help target resources where they are most needed (and make no mistake, additional funding - if spent well - can have a sizable impact on short- and long-term outcomes); and it can help teachers to improve instruction (especially when teachers have a role in designing classroom-based formative assessments).  But, as Orfield notes, “If used in the wrong way… [high-stakes testing] punishes students whose families have few educational resources and attended weak schools, and this will very disproportionately harm minority students and low-income students whose native language is not English.”

I would like to see testing used the right way.  Used the right way, we would observe the gaps and be motivated to launch a new civil rights movement in education – not one overloaded with civil rights rhetoric but instead pushing blunt and punishing instruments like NCLB and Race to the Top.  Rather, I would like to see a new movement that unapologetically presses for new civil rights protections within education policy.  For example, we need assertive school integration and affirmative action programs, as well as regulations reminiscent of the 1960s-era civil rights legislation.  When it comes to school choice programs, West is right that families need good information, but that is not all they need.  Orfield writes that choice programs would also need to guarantee that “all families be informed of choice alternatives and given forms to make a choice, …that the choices be honored without conditions or screening, that no transfers increased segregation, and that free transportation be provided.”

Having the glut of data made available by NCLB’s testing mandate has been a boon for researchers.  In all likelihood, the testing mandates aren’t going anywhere, so we will have lots more data coming.  This time, though, let’s use data in the service of real and sustained equity.