As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap…..

We cannot let continuing evidence of the folly of test-centric education be obscured by the craziness of our polarized politics or the increasingly frequent (and devastating) proof of climate change, because, make no mistake, public education is in danger, and not just from Betsy DeVos and her privatizing schemes.

Here’s my headline: Since the non-partisan “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 ushered in ‘accountability’ and ‘school reform,’ things have generally gone south, and students and teachers are paying the price. Students are being mis-educated and undereducated by a system that basically reduces them to a number, their score on standardized, machine-scored tests.

The latest evidence comes from ACT’s report on the “Performance of 2018 Graduates,” and it’s not pretty.  The ACT score range is 1-36, with 20 being “OK.”  The average score in English, 20.2, is a point lower than its high point in 2007.   And the average math score, 20.6, represents a 20-year low.

But it is actually worse than that, because ACT also claims to measure measures whether our high school graduates are ready for college…and most are not.

As Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz reported, “Math and English scores drew the attention of the ACT by another measure, too: readiness for college-level work. The ACT’s score benchmarks are correlated with the likelihood of earning Bs or Cs in credit-bearing coursework. And increasing numbers of students are falling short.

Only 4 in 10 met the math benchmark, the lowest level since 2004, and down from 46 percent in 2012. Six in 10 met the English benchmark, the lowest level since the benchmarks were introduced in 2002.”

It’s tempting to simply reprint data from ACT’s own report, merely adding emphasis here and there.

Slightly fewer ACT-tested graduates were ready for college coursework this year than last year. The percentage of students meeting at least three of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas was 38% for the 2018 US high school graduating class, down from 39% last year but the same as in 2016.

• A higher percentage of students this year than in recent years fell to the bottom of the preparedness scale, showing little or no readiness for college coursework. Thirty-five percent of 2018 graduates met none of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 31% in 2014 and from 33% last year.

• The national average ACT Composite score for the 2018 graduating class was 20.8, down from 21.0 last year but the same as in 2016. Average scores in English, mathematics, reading, and science all dropped between 0.1 and 0.3 point compared to last year.

Readiness levels in math and English have steadily declined since 2014.

Readiness levels in reading and science have varied over the past five years, with no clear upward or downward trends.

• The average Composite score for Asian students rose this year compared to last year. Average scores for students in all other racial/ethnic groups, however, were down.

College readiness levels remain dismal for underserved learners (low-income, minority, and/or first generation college students—who make up 43% of all ACT-tested graduates). Once again, fewer than a fourth of underserved graduates showed overall readiness for college coursework.


These seniors have had 12 or 13 years of test-centric education, and the kids coming up behind them have also endured what the ‘school reformers’ designed.  How much more evidence do we need of the folly of “No Child Left Behind” and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” before we take back our schools?

People who have consistently been ‘half right’ have been in charge of public education for too long.  Now some are changing their tune (“Perhaps we have been testing too much,” they say) and asking for another chance.  Others, however, are doubling down, calling for more charter schools, vouchers and other aid for private schools, and more anti-union initiatives.  I say a plague on both their houses.

It’s past time for progressives to speak loudly in support of strong public education….as well as other social initiatives that will address homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care.  Schools don’t function in isolation, not when–for example–about 10 percent of New York City’s public school students are homeless.

My suggestions for a clear path forward can be found in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”  You might also want to pick up Dan Koretz’s “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better;These Schools Belong to You and Me,” by Debbie Meier and Emily Gasol; and Ted Dintersmith’s “What Schools Could Be.” 



9 thoughts on “As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap…..

  1. Excellent heads-up John on what’s happened with ACT scores over the last 20 years as “reform” took root. There’s an issue of whether curriculum has been degraded (always a possibility) or the underlying population being assessed has changed (also a distinct possiblity). Whatever the underlying causes, the decline deserves attention.

    However, I think it’s more accurate to say ACT “claims” to measure college readiness than to endorse the ideas that it actually measures “whether our high school graduates are ready for college.” I know a little about this since I used to be in the college admissions business.

    As “How High the Bar?”, the report of the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League, noted:

    “For decades, college admissions officials and psychometricians have understood that college entrance examinations [which is what the ACT is] and the high school record, in combination, are the best predictors of first-year grades in four-year institutions. They predict very little beyond that. Of the two, the high school record, reflecting four years of student effort is the superior indicator of potential success in the first year . . .

    “It is therefore a surprise to find policymakers and advocates, who should know better, and psychometricians, who do know better, united behind a belief that . . . assessments have predictive validity in determining students’ readiness for college. The ‘college readiness’ standard rests on a very flimsy reed — that students meeting the standard are unlikely to require enrollment in remedial courses in the first college year and can hope to attain a ‘B’ in related mathematics or literature courses…. Analysts report that the correlations are, to put is as charitably as possible, only modest. It is estimated that they predict as little as 0.07 percent of first-year college GPA (on the English/Language arts ‘college readiness’ standard) and as much as 16 percent (on the mathematics standard)…. [I]n the worst cases, what accounts for 99.5 percent of first-year grades is a mystery [on the basis of the ‘college readiness’ standards].


    • Jim, You are spot-on, as usual. I have just made that edit, changing ‘measures’ to ‘claims to measure.’
      I should have noted as well that SAT scores have been unimpressive, as have NAEP scores.


  2. Based on what I am witnessing here in NH and across the country, I am not optimistic about the abandonment of the high stakes tests that identify “failing schools”. Without “failing schools” the voucher movement would fail… and the ongoing debates about “hardening” our schools is using up bandwidth and resources while reinforcing the need for parents to escape from public education. Those of us who value public education need to persist, though… otherwise the forces of negativity will prevail.


  3. Shame on you for peddling these deceptions, John. Student achievement reached all time highs as measured by NEAP in the wake of NCLB and accountability. Progress was made on PISA, too. Look at 2009 data.

    College readiness and college participation showed improvement during that decade.

    Indeed teacher satisfaction reached all time highs as measured by the MetLife survey.

    Sure, we have more to do. But our stagnation in the last several years has as much to do with the contribution of you and your friends to the evisceration of accountability rather than its improvement and strengthening.

    Yes, you reap what you sow. We reaped accountability and got gains. You reaped evisceration, and we are stagnant.

    Cut out the deceptions.


    • Sandy
      I understand your defensiveness, given that you were a primary architect of No Child Left Behind, but facts are facts. I didn’t cite the NAEP scores and what it called “A Lost Decade” in the piece above but should have, because that’s the most compelling evidence of all.
      That you blame us, the messengers, for reporting about the shortcomings is beneath you. You and others who have taken us down the road of test-based accountability need to take responsibility for the damage you have done to public education. I believe that all of you owe an apology to the millions of young people who were, for all extents and purposes, reduced to a test score. Unfortunately, they don’t get a do-over, so your apologies might ring hollow, but it would be a start.


  4. John Merrow for president! At least Secretary of Education.

    These testing nuts are trying to ruin the schools.

    Where does it all end?

    Let’s see how much funding the testing advocates get from the testing companies.

    Thanks, John, for trying to add a measure of sanity to national education policy.

    Larry Hayes


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