A noticeable difference between NCLB and ESSA is that ESSA is devoid of explicit goals. Yes, one could argue that “Every Student Succeeds” is a goal. I am still hedging my bet, however, on whether people will treat that tagline as a goal or as a policy statement, as in every student succeeds becomes the ESEA equivalent of “everyone gets a trophy”. Sure, ESSA does try to sneak some things like college-readiness and target high school graduation rates in through the back door, but there is nothing that corresponds to the NCLB rallying cry of 100% Proficient by 2014. Is that a good thing?
Goals as a Distraction
There is little question that, on so many levels, the NCLB goal of all students Proficient by 2014 was a distraction almost from the very beginning. First, nobody ever believed that all students would be performing at the proficient level by 2014, regardless of who determined what qualified as proficient performance. Second, the reliance on test results as the sole determiner of proficiency allowed concerns about test use to serve as a diversion from the real issues associated with improving student proficiency. Third, the mechanisms put in place to define Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO) and to measure Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward the goal of 100% Proficient by 2014 caused immeasurable damage by focusing on unmeasurable and largely irrelevant intermediate goals. Fourth, the penalties, or sanctions, for not meeting intermediate goals somehow became conflated with programs designed to help districts meet the goals. (Aside: Was confusing punishments with programs just a fluke or a reflection a deeper mindset in education, consistent with the manner in which grades are assigned and attempts are made to change behaviors in schools?)
The 100% Proficient goal was so much of a distraction that most people did not understand, or did not want to understand, that it was never actually a requirement. The requirement was that schools reduce the percentage of non-Proficient students by 10% each year. A school with 10%-20% of its students Proficient in 2002 would have been required to have approximately 75% of its students Proficient by 2014. A school with 90% Proficient in 2002 had a 2014 target of 97% Proficient. Perhaps the 74% and 97% targets were no more attainable that the 100% Proficient goal, but they would have certainly changed the conversation.
The Obama administration provided evidence of just how much simply changing language can change perceptions with their NCLB waivers. The waivers were widely portrayed and perceived as providing districts and schools with relief from the unrealistic and impossible mandate of the fundamentally flawed requirements of a broken NCLB. However, when you do the math, the waiver requirement that schools cut in half achievement gaps by 2018 is for all intents and purposes identical to the original NCLB requirements. As shown in the chart below, regardless of whether a school is low-performing, high-performing, or somewhere in between, there is no appreciable difference between cutting an achievement gap in half in seven years and reducing the percentage of non-Proficient students by 10% each year – a practical example of the importance of basic mathematics literacy.
The entire AMO and AYP process offers another example of the need for a basic understand of mathematics and statistics. The amount of time, effort, and money devoted to developing and implementing the machinery to determine whether schools actually met their AMO of 43%, 66%, or 83% Proficient was appalling. First, it is pretty much impossible to determine with a single test whether a school actually has 66% of its students Proficient versus 63% or 69%. Second, who cares whether 66% of students are Proficient? We care whether individual students are Proficient and we care whether the school is making real progress toward implementing a program that will produce the long-term goal of 100% Proficient, but nobody should care whether 43%, 66%, or 83% of students are Proficient in a given year.
The consequences of focusing on test scores and achieving intermediate targets at the expense of programs designed to promote long-term improvement have been well-documented. When the focus shifts from the intended outcome—improved student achievement—to the performance target—a test score—and it is much easier to produce short-term improvements in test scores than it is to produce long-term, sustainable improvements in student performance, the end result is a consequential validity disaster of epic proportions. Of course, the phenomenon is not limited to school accountability, test scores, and NCLB. Countless weight loss programs and get-rich-quick schemes and fundamentally flawed business models provide ample evidence of the allure and consequences of focusing on targets rather than changing behaviors.
Goals as an Asset
For all of the problems that can be linked to the 100% Proficient goal of NCLB, there is ample evidence that goals can be a valuable asset to support the changes in behavior needed to achieve long-term results. At the program level, goals can provide the foundation for securing commitment, resources, and funds to support a long-term initiative. At the individual level, explicit goals can help safeguard equity by ensuring that everyone is working toward the same long term outcome.
Many people have written about the characteristics of establishing productive goals that lead to sustainable changes in behavior. The qualities ascribed to good goals and goal setting are well-known:
- Goals need to attract and keep attention; that is, people have to perceive achieving the goal as an important and necessary outcome to commit to it.
- Goals need to be linked directly to programs designed to change behaviors.
- Goals need to be specific.
- Goals need to be difficult yet attainable.
- Goals need to be future-oriented. (One of the cardinal sins on NCLB is it remained in effect so long that its goals were no longer in the future.)
A common theme underlying each of the points above is that goals have to be appropriate for a given situation. In psychology, the Yerkes-Dodson law describes an empirical relationship between arousal and performance, which describes the importance of finding the appropriate amount of emotional arousal to stimulate optimal performance or optimal functioning. Too little or too much arousal can lead to less than optimal functioning, and consequently, have a negative impact on functioning.
In sports, the approaches used to stimulate optimal performance in a professional athlete are not likely to be as effective with an amateur or novice. Effective fitness programs are personalized, tailored to the individual’s current fitness level, lifestyle demands, and long-term goals. In school accountability, goals and consequences must take account of the context. It is unlikely that a single set of goals and consequences will be equally effective with a high-performing school, a school with just meeting accountability targets, and a school struggling to succeed. Equally important, the programs implemented to elicit the sustainable changes in behavior needed to produce the desired outcomes will vary for each of those schools.
ESSA provides the flexibility states to design and build the personalization of goals and consequences into their district and school accountability programs. There is also a danger, however, associated with such flexibility and ESSA’s lack of explicitly stated outcomes for all students. As I wrote in a prior piece, the incentives to establish different achievement expectations for different sets of students are strong. Computing conditional growth scores for students and value-added scores for schools and teachers are the latest approaches to accounting context when evaluating the performance of students, teachers, and schools. Like their predecessors such as alternative norm groups and similar school score bands, these measures can be valuable tools for establishing realistic short-term goals and consequences for particular groups of students. Without a clear focus on a long-term goal or outcome, however, the use of these conditional scores in isolation can result in separate and unequal expectations for various subgroups of students who are difficult to teach or who attend schools lacking in resources – a phenomenon which I have referred to as the slippery slope of growth.
The goal, therefore, is for states to develop school accountability programs under ESSA that improve upon, rather than abandon, the outcomes-based goals of NCLB. Hopefully, those accountability programs will find a way to use those goals as an asset rather than a distraction.