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As published in The Washington Times, 12/20/2001
Congress has now completed its work on President Bush's signature "No Child Left Behind" education bill and this much-amended measure will head for the president's desk. A grand, bipartisan, signing ceremony will follow.
The angst this bill has produced among defenders of the status quo suggests that it just might change something. If so, the strongest engine of that change will be the measure's focus on holding schools, districts and states accountable for their students' achievement and the requirement that they annually test all pupils in reading and math, from grade three through eight, to see whether achievement gains are actually being made. This is the most important of Mr. Bush's original reform proposals to survive the Capitol Hill gantlet, Democrats having clobbered flexibility for states and permitted but a pale shadow of the original school choice options that the president had proposed for parents.
The bill would be far stronger — and even more upsetting to the education establishment — if it still contained intact those two powerful reform engines. But the standards-testing-and-accountability provisions alone make it a modest improvement over current law, and thus worth enacting. It also contains a promising new reading program, needed changes in bilingual education, a bit of welcome help for charter schools, a sounder approach to improving teacher quality, and several other hopeful features.
The best thing about the new testing mandate has not been much discussed, though you can be sure the blob is keenly aware of it. That is the opportunity it creates for states and districts to track the educational "value added" by individual schools and teachers. That calculation has immense potential for strengthening education accountability and performance. But it's not something the establishment wants to happen — and it may prevent states and districts from even making such calculations, let alone using them for personnel and management decisions.
"Value added" analysis is a byproduct of testing, meant to gauge whether students are making satisfactory progress toward state academic standards. While the new statutory requirement would be satisfied simply by gauging that progress against the standards themselves, annual tests also make it possible to track how much is gained each year. If we were talking about a child's height, this would be the difference between saying he is now 32 inches tall and saying that he grew three inches during the past year.
Here's how it works in education. The state tests its schoolchildren at the end of, say, fourth grade. Then it tests the same kids in the same subjects at the conclusion of fifth grade. The difference in scores shows what they learned in fifth grade — i.e., how much knowledge and skills their school or teacher imparted to them during that year. This method skirts educators' usual excuse for not being held to account for their pupils' performance, namely that many factors are beyond their control. Because of that anxiety, teachers have long warned that results-based accountability would punish those who work with the most challenging youngsters or in the toughest schools. Value-added analysis, however, takes into account how the children were doing when a particular teacher or school started with them. Instead of gauging their performance only in relation to fixed standards, it relates this year's scores to last year's.
That still scares many educators because it illumines their impact — or lack thereof — on students. It enables analysts to look at the children emerging from a given fifth-grade classroom and see how much Miss Applewhite managed to teach her students, or to scrutinize the kids enrolled in the Jefferson school to see what they gained by way of reading and math skills during 180 days of attendance. It would come as no surprise to learn that some teachers and schools turn out to produce far greater gains than others.
The state with the greatest experience in value-added analysis is Tennessee, pioneered by statistician William Sanders. He showed the profound boost that a child gets from having a series of highly effective teachers — and the irreparable damage caused by a string of weak instructors. Faced with relentless union opposition, however, Tennessee hasn't dared use these data to make hiring, firing and salary decisions for teachers or principals. It doesn't even confer bonuses on value-added superstars or get rid of the real disasters (most of whom have tenure). The most that happens is an administrator armed with this information may quietly use it to make classroom assignments or to suggest that a teacher would probably benefit from some "professional development."
Seven or eight other states already gather test data that would permit value-added analysis but they haven't bitten this political bullet either, nor have the many districts that could do this with their own local test results. One top education official, asked why his state was not doing this, said "I already have enough problems."
To be sure, value-added education analysis carries its own complexities. One must be willing to link data on individual children and teachers, then track both from year to year, which is technically tricky and, some fret, poses privacy concerns. To be fair to teachers, one must discount the scores of children who spent just a fraction of the year in a particular classroom or school — a big issue in places with high pupil turnover. Value-added analysis can only be done for subjects that are tested annually, which means little is known about the art teacher, and maybe even the science teacher. And it gets complicated in the upper grades where students typically have multiple instructors for various subjects during a single day, though school-wide analysis remains possible.
Despite these difficulties, this method holds huge potential for education accountability, which is the main thrust of the Bush reform plan and central for states that are serious about standards-based reform. But if states and districts seize this opportunity and use this analysis to make rational personnel and management decisions, schools and children stand to gain a great deal from the education legislation now nearing its denouement in Washington.
William J. Bennett is a former secretary of education and co-director of Empower America. Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.