Grading Obama

Lance T. Izumi, a senior fellow in California studies and the senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, is the co-author of the book “Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice.” (Full biography.)

The federal No Child Left Behind Act has been the target of much criticism, some ill-founded and some legitimate. Of the latter, the issue of accountability confusion is the most important. Rather than reducing this confusion, Barack Obama’s campaign has added to it.

The No Child Left Behind legislation requires states to test their students and ensure that they make adequate yearly progress toward proficiency in English and math. The problem is that each state has created its own particular test and set its own definition of “proficiency.” Thus, one state may have a rigorous test and a high benchmark for proficiency, while another may have an unchallenging assessment and a low proficiency bar. It is therefore impossible to compare proficiency rates between states, which in turn has created a confused patchwork of differing state accountability systems.

Unlike some of his supporters who are against this legislation, Barack Obama would retain the law and reform its assessment component. His campaign Web site says, “He will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner.” How exactly would Mr. Obama improve assessments so that they focus on the individualized learning of students?

Talking to National Public Radio, Melody Barnes, a spokeswoman for Mr. Obama’s campaign, said recently that Mr. Obama supports “portfolio assessment” of student performance. Portfolio assessment usually requires a student to perform various classroom assignments, like write essays, do individual projects, participate in group projects. These assignments are put into a portfolio for that student and evaluated. In a debate earlier this month, Linda Darling-Hammond, education adviser to Mr. Obama, pointed to other countries where students are assessed based on “kids doing science inquiries, research papers, technology products.”

Portfolio-assessment supporters claim that this method gives a broader view of a student’s knowledge level. Whether this is true or not, the problem is that portfolio assessment is extremely difficult to implement effectively in practice.

Kentucky enacted a portfolio-assessment program in 1990. After a few years, a state review panel found that because teachers in the students’ own schools scored the portfolios, there was grade inflation. Furthermore, the panel found that since teaching, time allotted for assignments and opportunities for revising work differed from classroom to classroom, it was impossible to compare student performance fairly.

A RAND study of Vermont’s portfolio-assessment system, which used independent scorers, came to similar conclusions. The study found that those assessing portfolios were confused by the scoring guidelines and disagreed among themselves during the evaluations. Moreover, training a large number of scorers proved difficult and the system was hugely expensive. Finally, student task variation from classroom to classroom made reliable evaluation impossible.

Thus, while it may seem appealing to augment standardized test scores with evaluations of students’ classwork, injecting subjectivity, uncertainty and unreliability into an already confused situation only makes matters worse. Portfolio assessment may be worthwhile on the individual teacher and student level, but as a system for evaluating millions of students it would be a disaster.

No Child Left Behind is a hugely flawed piece of legislation, but its biggest deficiency is not too little money or too much testing. No, the biggest problem with the law is the fact that students who are performing badly in their public school and those attending failing public schools remain stuck in the public system. The law gives these students no escape ticket, like a voucher, out of the government-run system, forcing them to hope forlornly that the public schools will somehow improve.

If law is to be overhauled, it should be simplified as follows: keep the testing but refocus it to let parents know how their individual child is progressing rather than the current emphasis on group averages, and then make vouchers and other school-choice options as widely available as possible. More transparent assessment information and easily accessed school choice will do more to force public school systems to improve than complicated and ineffective state accountability systems and will give students immediate education alternatives. Whoever becomes president should recognize that choice and simplicity, not more government complexity is the best path for our schools.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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