The No Child Left Behind Law of 2002 did two kind of funny things. First, it mandated that all the states test as many students as possible (excluding only the minimum of Special Ed and ELL kids) in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading every year. Second (and this was the funny part), it said that the state would have to set a proficiency benchmark in each grade and then reach this benchmark for 100% of tested students by 2014. Just like in Lake Wobegon, all the kids would be above average. It got even sillier over time, since the rule was that “Adequate Yearly Progress” in each school had to be established and then met, and this was in general determined by the slope of the line between the current year and 2014 and between the current percentage of students proficient and 100 percent. So, here were California’s initial guidelines for statewide adequate yearly progress in math and reading:
That was crazy enough, but you can guess what happened next- as schools and the states as a whole failed to meet these lofty targets, the slope of the line became even more steep if schools were going to reach 100 percent by 2014, and so a larger and larger percentage of schools failed to meet these criteria and were therefore in the doghouse as far as Adequate Yearly Progress goes and were liable for some kind of corrective action under the law. Eventually, as you approached 100 percent, pretty much all the schools were deemed in need of improvement, pretty much the opposite of Lake Wobegon.
The states had control over what tests to give and what topics to cover, so you can tell that there was a lot of pressure to dumb down the tests and to set the passing score really low, so that everyone wasn’t getting threatened with state takeover all at once. But this pressure played out differently in different places; in New York, the guys in Albany kind of liked the leverage they were getting over the schools in New York City and Buffalo, so they kept the 4th and 8th grade tests pretty hard, while the 5th, 6th, and 7th grade tests were written by the city and got progressively easier and the passage rates pretty much 100% over time. In California, from what I could see, the state tests all got pretty easy, in Massachusetts they stayed pretty hard.
Eventually, though, the states couldn’t dumb down the tests that much more even if they wanted to, and even the more affluent suburban schools were starting to get into trouble; my last teaching job was at a perfectly adequate middle class suburban district (the “All American High School“)where the district administrators would sometimes gloomily appear and bemoan that we weren’t reaching adequate yearly progress and were going to get some kind of formal discipline from the state, and I’d raise my hand and start laughing about how crazy it was they thought 100 percent of kids were supposed to pass the test.
Teachers learn to screen out this kind of craziness, of course, and just go on and teach the best they can without worrying about it, and in any case the Obama Administration started passing out waivers from the law so that the states wouldn’t have to piss off suburban parents by taking over their kids’ schools. The waivers often had conditions, and that’s partially how we got Common Core as well as widespread adoption of VAM- the Feds would give the waiver if the states made various commitments about adopting harder standards and harder tests, as well as various stricter teacher evaluation methods, which is what Obama and Duncan, ed reformers from way back, wanted anyways. This was probably mostly pointless, the new tests anyways, since the old tests weren’t really all that easy for most kids, easy though they were: the problem was that the passing score was set around 50 percent correct or even lower in a lot of states, which is how they were getting those almost-100 percent passing rates under the old law.
Finally, this last year the Republican Congress and the Obama Administration passed a new law, technically the Every Student Succeeds Act (which is itself a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965), which got rid of Adequate Yearly Progress altogether, and has a bunch of new wishlists about things like principal professional development, now that the ed reformers got what they wanted on teacher evaluation.
In the meantime, though, states already adopted the new tests, which often involve 5-8 days of computer-based testing and are extremely hard even for very bright students. Moreover, the same tests were for the first time being used in totally different states like New Mexico and New Jersey, from really rural poor districts where just pulling off putting all the kids on networked computers for days at a time is a big undertaking to rich suburban districts where parents are more than willing to call up their congressman when their kid starts crying about their crazy math homework.
On the scale of social science, standardized tests, even dumbed-down ones with easy passing cutoffs, are really good measurements- a lot of test-retest reliability and predictive validity even for not-so-good tests. So the fact that every single kid in the country was taking these tests every year was, over the last decade or so, a social science goldmine, which is probably why all these economists decided to study schools to a large degree and why we had all these experimental and quasiexperimental studies of charter schools and teacher effectiveness. But the adoption of the harder tests and the harder curriculum that went with them has produced enough of a political blowback that it’s hard to know how much longer the data will still be broadly available- California passed a law specifically to make it harder to share student achievement data, for example, and the Gates’ Foundation’s plans to create a national student achievement database that would follow kids into college and the workforce has been mostly scrapped, from what I’ve heard.
So Adequate Yearly Progress was a moronic idea that, if you believe in social science, produced some pretty good social science and maybe even made a difference in the world, since the Department of Education started basing its grants around which programs had decent experimental and quasi-experimental studies showing they worked, and people like Roland Fryer have had some success in replicating the results of the more promising charter schools in regular low-income public schools. Of course, the results of these many, many studies suggest that effects top out at less than half a standard deviation under the best of all circumstances, even putting aside publication bias, fade-out and concerns about external validity.
What’s next? Trump is not much of a technocrat, needless to say, though a lot of Betsy DeVos’s former collaborators certainly are, so it’s hard to say. As Ed Realist points out in this great post, No Child Left Behind was the result of the fusion of progressive ideals about educational inequality and a conservative desire to stick it to the teachers’ unions. But now the teacher unions have been properly stuck, and most conservatives are properly more interested in reducing federal interference in local school governance than in further sticking. Meanwhile, I still see some silliness like this from progressives, that argues that in the presence of evidence that teacher quality is well-balanced between rich and poor schools, the government should use teacher quality as an active means of redistribution, by pushing better teachers to poorer schools. Even aside from the fact that this has not been shown to work well-see discussion of Transferring Talents Teachers here– it seems pretty short-sighted not to consider the social benefits of making sure bright middle class kids get at least adequate teachers; even from a Rawlsian redistributionist perspective, you want to be sure you have enough social product to redistribute in the next generation once you get there.
But I sense a lot of exhaustion from liberals as well as conservatives on most of these issues, which is presumably why Teach for America avoided issues of education policy almost entirely in its response to DeVos’s appointment and just focused on the “don’t be racist” presumptive common ground. So, while we might not be getting as many juicy new Weird Education Tricks, once school data is less widely available to validate them and if indeed the new Administration is indeed less eager for fights with local school system, maybe we’ll get a chance to adjust to the existing law and testing regimes without doing the constant Red Queen Race of acting like everything is a disaster and a crisis all the time. And that would be its own kind of Adequate Yearly Progress.