Rigorous Accountability v. Guaranteed Outcomes

Published September 1, 1999

WASHINGTON__Contradictions abound in the federal city. But one of the strangest in education annals popped up last spring, and it’s had education policy circles buzzing all summer.

On May 20, the Clinton-Gore administration sent Congress its long_delayed proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for another five years. The key word was “accountability.”

The 1994 reauthorization had used ESEA to guide states along the road to “standards_based reform.” As the next step in 1999, the administration would use the $14 billion ESEA to require states to develop assessments aligned with their standards. There should be “one rigorous accountability system” holding all schools–including high_poverty Title I recipients–accountable for gains in student performance, said the U.S. Department of Education.

Then, on May 28, The Chronicle of Higher Education disclosed in a front_page bombshell that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) had quietly circulated among college officials a draft of a “resource guide” casting aspersions on high_stakes tests that have a “disparate impact” on females and minority_group members. The term comes from employment law, which has frowned on job tests that generate unequal passing rates for various subgroups.

But does any legitimate test shake out equal results? Is the goal of rigorous accountability compatible with that of guaranteed outcomes?

The OCR’s document naturally created its biggest stir in higher education circles, because it seemed to target admission tests like the SAT and ACT at the very time courts and citizen referenda have been shooting down race and sex quotas in admissions, a/k/a affirmative action. Conservative critics suspected OCR’s motive was to reinstall preferential admissions by fiat. But foes of standardized testing welcomed OCR’s foray on the grounds that admissions tests are racist or over_emphasized.

Clearly, though, OCR’s central theme, if it became policy, would affect K_12 assessment and high_school graduation tests, too:

“The use of any educational test which has a significant disparate impact on members of any particular race, national origin, or sex is discriminatory, and a violation of Title VI and/or Title IX, respectively, unless it is educationally necessary and there is no practicable form of assessment which meets the educational institution’s needs and would have less of a disparate impact.”

That wording suggests an administration preference for alternative assessments, such as subjectively scored portfolios of student work, that might yield almost equal outcomes. But would that mean “high standards for all,” in the words of the ESEA proposal, or watered_down standards for all? Would it help any low_achieving minority students rise to the top?

The last word is yet to come. Called to testify before a congressional subcommittee in late June, OCR chief Norma Cantu promised her staff would revise the guidelines to minimize any burden on colleges. She said the administration supports standardized tests “when they are valid.” OCR will post the next draft on its Web site for public comment.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

The Clinton-Gore administration’s proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is available at the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site at www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/ESEA/prospectus/title1_a.html.

The next draft of the resource guide from the Department’s Office of Civil Rights will be posted on its Web site at www.ed.gov/offices/OCR.