The fifth and final installment of Pennsylvania’s “School Performance Profile” scores was released with about as much real meaning as the first set of numbers publicized in 2013. To wit: Not much.
A bit if history is not only important, but in order, and the reason is simple: It is precisely the recurring lack of historic context that lets the state and the nation careen blindly from one school “accountability” system to the next. We spend too much time trying to get to something else rather than trying to get to something truly useful.
Back in 2001 amid much hoopla the U.S. Congress passed a bipartisan bill optimistically dubbed “No Child Left Behind,” signed by George W. Bush in 2002. How could anyone oppose the notion of “No Child Left Behind?” It offered a noble goal of making sure all public school students could score “proficient” or “advanced” in standardized reading and math tests by 2014. Schools had to show “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) toward that goal each year.
With federal approval, states could decide on the tests, and on the definition of “proficient,” as long as the rules apply to students in general and to several “subgroups” that statistically fare poorly on such exams, including English Language Learners, special education and students from economically-disadvantaged homes.
The problem, critics presciently pointed out, was that 100 percent proficiency could never realistically be reached. This wasn’t a case of what Bush himself once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” it was a cold fact. Some students always have extenuating situations — new to the country, constantly moving families, extreme poverty or health situations — that make proficiency unobtainable without dramatic and costly additional support or exceptions, and those supports were not included.
As 2014 neared, the Barack Obama administration started issuing waivers, letting states develop new, more flexible systems. Thus Pennsylvania unveiled the SPP system in 2013, using a wider variety of test results and dropping any hard and fast annual goals as required under NCLB. It was a step forward, but barely. SPP became largely meaningless beyond comparing schools to each other or to their own past performances. These may be measures worth making, but they are hardly measures worth codifying into law.
In 2015, Washington tried a third time, scrapping NCLB completely and replacing it with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is still unfolding. Next year, Pennsylvania replaces SPP (which replaced AYP) with a “Future Ready PA Index,” promising to use even broader measures in gauging school success.
So the SPP scores released Friday go into the same dustbin of “school accountability” that consumed all those AYP results discarded in 2013. Will the new system have real value? Here’s hoping, but sadly, odds are it won’t, for the same reason the others failed.
You can set all the goals and measure all the data you want, but if you don’t pick a proven system, stick to it and fully fund it, your sewing seed in beach sand.