Ultimate Test

Who Is Accountable for Education If Everybody Fails?

By Jennifer Sloan McCombs and Stephen J. Carroll

Jennifer McCombs is a policy analyst. Stephen Carroll is an economist.

Student test scores nationwide raise doubts about the ability of the 50 states to meet the ambitious federal goal established by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002: that 100 percent of students in each state pass a state-administered achievement test within 12 years. As of 2003, the most recent year for which test scores are available from every state, the majority of the states are not even close to reaching the goal of 100-percent proficiency.

Demanding accountability without providing adequate resources can be an evasion of accountability by setting up public schools for failure.

Equally dubious is the meaning of “proficiency,” the definition of which varies from state to state. To validate the state test results, therefore, students must also take a national test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Known as the Nation’s Report Card, the NAEP is the only common criterion by which to compare student achievement across the states. Statewide proficiency rates on the NAEP are often much lower than on the state tests.

But even according to the state tests, the majority of the states have a long way to go to reach the national goal. The evidence suggests that success in education cannot be guaranteed merely by mandating standards and tests. Americans must focus their resources for education not just on the mechanics of testing and accountability systems but also on the fundamentals that matter most: preparing students to learn, to become literate, and to become critical thinkers. Tests do not, in and of themselves, teach these things.

Figure 1 -- In Every State, Fewer Than Half of 8th Graders Read Proficiently, According to the Nationwide Assessment

The gulf between the national goal and the state realities poses a challenge for all 50 states (see Figure 1). But one state, California, serves as an especially compelling case study. Widely regarded as one of the best systems of education in the country as recently as 30 years ago, the California public school system has since become, according to most measures, one of the worst.

Since the 1970s, California schools have been buffeted by legal, political, and financial turbulence, along with rapid demographic change. Home to major shifts in educational policy in the last few decades and to 13 percent of the nation’s students, California has become an immense laboratory for nearly everything that can go right or wrong with education in America.

By reviewing the recent history of California’s public schools, their precipitous decline, and their potential for revival, policymakers nationwide can learn important lessons about how to manage public schools. Today, for example, the citizens of California need long-term, comprehensive solutions, beginning with an improved financing system that can tap into what the state can really afford and that can then provide the resources that the schools really need.

Whether at the national or at the state level, public education needs both accountability and resources. Although providing resources without demanding accountability can lead to a waste of resources, demanding accountability without providing adequate resources can be an evasion of accountability by setting up public schools for failure.

A National Challenge: Adolescent Literacy

Reforms in education have helped to raise reading achievement among the nation’s children in the primary grades. But many children are not moving beyond basic decoding skills — deciphering words and sounding them out — to fluency and comprehension, even as they advance to the 4th grade and beyond to tougher classes in history, mathematics, and science. This trend is especially troubling because today’s adolescents (defined as students in the 4th through 12th grades) are facing a job market that demands high literacy and critical-thinking skills.

Many children are not moving beyond basic decoding skills to fluency and comprehension.

NCLB requires states to adopt accountability systems that set challenging content and performance standards for all students. To ensure that students meet the standards, NCLB relies on a battery of high-stakes tests. By 2005–2006, the states must annually test all children in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and in one grade in high school. By 2007–2008, the states must test students in science at least once in grades 3–5, 6–9, and 10–12. States must establish goals for performance on the tests and track performance for all students and subgroups of students, including racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and migrant students.

By 2014, all schools are required to reach 100-percent proficiency — that is, all children must pass the state test. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress toward this federal goal will face escalating sanctions over time, such as being required to offer school choice, to accept a lesser role in decisionmaking, to reconstitute school staff, to institute a new curriculum, to extend the school year or school day, or to appoint an outside expert to advise the school.

To gauge the state of literacy among adolescents in America, we analyzed the extent to which adolescents are meeting the state literacy goals, as measured by the 2002 or 2003 state tests. We analyzed the extent to which adolescents are meeting the national literacy goal, as measured by the 2003 NAEP. And we analyzed the extent to which the state and national results are consistent with one another.

We focus here on the reading achievement of students in middle school (grades 6–8). Forty-three states had readily reportable data for middle school students. We report 8th-grade scores for 36 states, 7th-grade scores for 5 states, and 6th-grade scores for 2 states. Meanwhile, the NAEP tested 8th graders in all 50 states.

The results were sobering. In 11 states, fewer than half the students met the state proficiency standards. And in all states, fewer than half the students met the NAEP proficiency standard.

On the state tests, the proficiency rates ranged from 88 percent in Texas to 21 percent in South Carolina. But on the NAEP, the proficiency rates ranged from 43 percent in Massachusetts to 20 percent in New Mexico (see Figure 2). Massachusetts and New Hampshire were the only states to have proficiency rates of 40 percent or higher on the NAEP. The average state proficiency rate for reading among 8th graders nationwide on the NAEP was just 32 percent.

Figure 2 -- Wide Variations Appear Between Reading Scores on State Tests and on the National Test

There are large differences in the rigor of the state tests and in the performance levels that states deem “proficient.” Compare, for instance, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming. Among 8th graders, 21 percent in South Carolina and 39 percent in Wyoming passed the state test, compared with 86–88 percent in North Carolina and Texas (see Figure 3). But on the NAEP, only 29 percent of 8th graders in North Carolina and 26 percent in Texas scored at the proficient level, similar to the 24 percent in South Carolina and 34 percent in Wyoming. Therefore, even if each state were to meet its 100-percent proficiency goal on the state tests, the students in each state would likely have quite disparate abilities, knowledge, and skills.

Figure 3 -- Similar Scores Across States on National Test Suggest That State Tests Define Proficiency Differently
Figure 4 -- Similar Differences Between Reading Scores of White and Latino 8th Graders Across States on the National Test Suggest That State Tests Reflect Differences Differently

Likewise, discrepancies appear between the state and national scores for subgroups of students. Compare the scores for white and Latino 8th graders in California, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas, and Wisconsin. According to the Texas test alone, Latino students there trailed white students by only 11 percentage points, the smallest reported difference of any state. The Idaho test reported one of the largest differences. But on the NAEP, the differences between white and Latino 8th graders were identical across the five states (see Figure 4). If a state test shows small performance gaps between subgroups while the NAEP shows much larger performance gaps, then it is important for state policymakers to reflect on what this information might imply.

Overall, the data show that our nation faces a tremendous challenge to raise the literacy skills of our nation’s adolescents. Simply mandating standards and conducting tests will not guarantee success. Unless we, as a nation, are prepared to focus attention and resources on this challenge, our schools are likely to continue producing students who lack the necessary skills for, and are thus ill-prepared to deal with, the demands of higher education and the workplace.

Simply mandating standards and conducting tests will not guarantee success.

As part of NCLB, the federal government has made hefty investments in early reading programs. One NCLB program, called Reading First, aims to improve reading skills among children in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Another NCLB program, called Early Reading First Grants, aims to improve the pre-reading skills of children from birth to age 5.

However, our nation has not made a commensurate effort to cultivate the literacy of students as they progress to 4th grade and beyond. Middle school and high school students need to build on the literacy strategies of grade school to make sense of abstract, complex subjects that are removed from personal experiences. The need to guide adolescents to advanced stages of literacy is a necessary next step in normal reading development.

As a nation, if we fail to properly address adolescent literacy, the reading gains made by students up through the 3rd grade may be lost or diluted. Policymakers, schools, and teachers need to accept the responsibility of teaching adolescents to read and derive meaning from complex texts in the disciplines taught. The costs of inattention are very high, both in personal and in economic terms.

A Case Study: California

As recently as the 1970s, California’s public schools were considered to be among the nation’s best. Today, that reputation no longer stands. There is widespread concern that the state school system has slipped badly relative to its past performance and to that of systems in other states.

Widespread social and demographic changes throughout the state are obvious. But we believe that these changes have not been decisive in the decline of the public schools. Other large states that have undergone similar shifts — Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas — have not suffered similar setbacks in education. We point instead to a series of legal and political factors that have rocked California’s school finance system for three decades (see centerpiece on pp. 16–17).

California was the first state to implement comprehensive school finance reform, beginning in 1971, when the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional. In Serrano v. Priest, the court agreed with the Serrano plaintiffs that basing large differences in school district spending per pupil on property values violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In a series of related actions, the state legislature limited the amount that district revenues from property values could vary from district to district and the amount that districts were allowed to raise on their own.

In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, which limited property tax rates to 1 percent and capped annual increases in property taxes. In response, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 8, under which the state took control of school district funding. In the following academic year, the percentage of school district funding coming from the state government ballooned from 32 percent to 62 percent. In 1979–1980, the state’s portion swelled to 71 percent.

The state equalized resources across school districts so that students in poorer districts were at less of a disadvantage in terms of spending per pupil than they had been before. However, this reform also appears to have contributed to lower overall levels of spending statewide.

Prior to 1978, local voters had decided at the ballot box how much to tax themselves for local schools. But when the resources started to become equalized across districts statewide, local voters lost some of their incentive to spend so much on schools, thus precipitating a substantial decline in statewide school spending relative to that in other states. The decline in spending likely led to larger class sizes and, perhaps, to lower achievement levels for students in California compared with those across the nation.

Indeed, Proposition 13 marked a dramatic turning point in funding for K–12 public education in California. Revenues and expenditures per pupil had grown fairly rapidly both in California and nationwide until the early 1980s. But California fell well behind the nation by the late 1980s. Despite recent funding increases for K–12 education, California schools have continued to spend far below the national average. Measured in year 2000 dollars, spending per pupil in California went from more than $600 above the national average in 1978 to more than $600 below the national average in 2000.

Proposition 98, passed by California voters in 1988, did not help much. Despite its good intentions (of guaranteeing to public schools a minimum percentage of the state’s budget), Proposition 98 practically institutionalized the bad habit of subjecting school finances to the extreme fluctuations in the state’s economy. More than a third of state funding under Proposition 98 has also been earmarked for specific local purposes, further limiting local discretion.

In 1996, California enacted a popular voluntary program to reduce class sizes in grades K–3 and 9. The program succeeded in reducing K–3 class sizes — but at great expense, financially and otherwise. The program offered schools $650 per student (later $800 per student) for each K–3 classroom with 20 or fewer students. An unintended consequence was that the state needed to hire lots of teachers who lacked certification to teach the growing number of smaller classes. Other programs in education were cut to pay for the additional teachers and to make room for more classes. The evidence is mixed on whether the program has raised academic achievement.

Figure 5 -- A Growing Percentage of California Teachers Had Not Been Formally Trained and Certified
Figure 6 -- Spending Per Pupil as a Percentage of Personal Income Has Fallen Nationwide, But Especially in California

Today, California still has the second-highest ratio of students per teacher of any state, at 20.9 students per teacher. The U.S. average is 16.1. As a group, California’s public K–12 teachers are formally trained, state-certified professionals. But by 1999–2000, about 15 percent of the teacher workforce consisted of newly employed teachers, the majority of whom were not yet formally trained and certified (see Figure 5). These relatively underqualified teachers have been concentrated in urban schools, in low performing schools, and in schools with high percentages of low-income and minority students.

California public school facilities have also seen better days. Per-pupil spending on construction in the state has fallen behind that of the nation. From 1991 to 2000, the cumulative gap in construction spending in year 2000 dollars came to about $890 less per pupil in California than in the United States.

California has made recent progress in addressing K–12 facility needs, thanks largely to voter approval of several state general obligation bonds and to legislative changes that have enabled local districts to approve local general obligation bonds. In 2000, the passage of Proposition 39 reduced the voter approval requirement for local bonds from two-thirds of district voters to 55 percent. Then in 2002 alone, California voters approved the issuance of more than $11 billion in state bonds and nearly $10 billion in local bonds.

However, the state still lags the nation in terms of the adequacy of school buildings and per-pupil construction spending. The inadequacies are concentrated in central cities, where the schools serve disproportionately minority and low-income populations, and in rural areas. (The 1971 court order that sought to shrink the financial disparities between low- and high-income districts pertained to the state’s duty to provide money for operating expenses, not for construction.)

The low funding levels for California’s K–12 public schools reflect comparatively low effort, considering the state’s financial capacity. Figure 6 shows public school spending as a percentage of personal income. By the standards set nationwide, California could have afforded to spend more on schools in the 1980s and 1990s than it actually did. Proposition 13 may have caused the rapid decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s in expenditures as a fraction of personal income.

It is impossible to make a direct link between low funding levels and low student achievement levels in California, because the state has no reliable longitudinal data on achievement reaching back to the 1970s. However, relatively low achievement levels would be expected given relatively low funding levels, relatively high class sizes, relatively inadequate facilities, and students with relatively great needs.

California could have afforded to spend more on schools in the 1980s and 1990s than it actually did.

Sure enough, the scores of California public school students have hit nearly rock bottom. We averaged the NAEP scores on reading and mathematics for 4th graders and 8th graders in all 50 states from 1990 through 2003 (see figure on p. 17). The data, shown as units of standard deviation from the national average, place the test scores for California below those for every state except Louisiana and Mississippi. The figure also highlights the average scores for the four other most populous states, all of which perform well above California.

On the bright side, California is making gains in its NAEP scores. Using the average scores from just the 2002 and 2003 assessments, California ranks 45th out of 50 states, up from 48th.

Accountability with Resources

California’s experience offers the nation numerous valuable lessons. Whether in California or across the country, it is unfair to hold students and schools accountable for success without giving them the resources they need to succeed. The steep decline in local discretion over spending, which has occurred not just in California but in many other states as well, also runs counter to the increased emphasis placed on accountability in K–12 education in recent years.

A different approach is needed. In California, coming up with better solutions will be the central charge of a new bipartisan California State Quality of Education Commission. It is our hope that the commission will square the school accountability system with a new statewide finance system that together can provide the incentives and resources that the schools really need to help all students meet the state performance standards.

We further hope that this kind of comprehensive approach will spread nationwide. If federal and state lawmakers insist on holding school districts accountable for student performance, then the school districts need to be entrusted with sufficient resources and with the local budgetary discretion to allocate the resources according to local need.

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