Guest Column

A Matter of Wealth: The Slippery Slope of Testing and Accountability

Public school reform initiatives, aimed at higher levels of student achievement, challenge state legislatures and educators in every region of our nation.

Variations on familiar themes crop up time and again, from teacher competency and more demanding graduation requirements to site-based management and curtailing social promotion.

In most states, results of mandated tests are showcased with district-by-district or school-by-school comparisons and run up the media flagpole for all to dissect. For some schools, planting their flag at the top of the achievement peak is an easy jaunt. For others, it’s a slippery slope with obstacles on all sides. Within this quagmire of testing and accountability, how does one interpret these test results and when does money matter?

Disaggregating Scores
Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate District in White Bear Lake, Minn., is one of three special school districts in the seven-county metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul. All three Intermediate Districts provide special education, career and technical education and a variety of other educational specialties to their member districts. In the case of Northeast Metro, 11 suburban school districts made up its membership when state-mandated tests were administered to 8th-graders last spring.

School-by-school and districtwide information relating to the assessment was offered to the public in three categories: the percentage of 8th-graders passing the math test, the percentage of 8th-graders passing the reading exam and the percentage of students tested who live in poverty, based upon qualification for free and reduced-priced lunch. What the data reporting failed to emphasize was how poverty and affluence affected the scores of these students.

Results in Northeast Metro member districts reinforce the danger of drawing conclusions about student achievement and school quality separate from factors of wealth and poverty. In comparing results of the 11 school districts, we found:


  • Five of the six of the most affluent school districts also ranked in the top six districts with the highest average number of students achieving minimum passing scores.



  • The four school districts with the highest percentage of students living in poverty also had the lowest percentage of students passing the two basic skills tests.


    This striking relationship between wealth and student achievement was equally compelling in the broader metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which includes some 40 school districts.

    Among this larger sample of districts:


  • Six of the seven most affluent districts had the highest average number of students passing the math and readings tests.



  • Six of the seven poorest districts had the lowest scores and the lowest average number of students passing the tests.


    Nearly identical results have been consistently obtained since the emergence of Minnesota’s basic skills testing. So does money matter? In Minnesota’s metropolitan districts, the answer is clearly yes.

  • A New Language
    It is uniquely American that we invent or adapt language to accompany new governmental measures for reforming public schools. In places like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Cleveland and other urban districts, the new language of accountability comes with the name "reconstitution," which some have interpreted to mean sweeping the principal and teachers out the door and starting over with a new staff.

    Preliminary results of a three-year study of reconstitution by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education are mixed and inconclusive. According to Jennifer O’Day, the study’s principal investigator, "All schools suffered from a legacy of failure that persisted after reconstitution and made the building of both will and capacity for change difficult."

    The critics of reconstitution and other radical (and punitive) accountability strategies often turn to the work of Peter Senge and other systems thinkers to emphasize that simply changing the players--in this case, the building principal and instructional staff--does not change the fundamental drivers affecting student achievement. The act of reconstitution actually shrouds the real issues. In effect, it promises parents and students that a new set of educators is the lynchpin that will quickly and significantly raise test scores at their school.

    When Wealth Counts
    Clearly, wealth matters for the achievement of students in metropolitan Minneapolis and St. Paul. Schools with the most affluent families led the testing parade. Where families were poorest, schools brought up the rear. These low-performing schools become vulnerable to the "R" question--should our school be reconstituted or is there a better solution?

    Unlike the watchman on the Titanic, we must recognize and accept that the problems (and solutions) lie not at the surface, but well below the waterline, embedded within the base of the achievement iceberg. Senge and his colleague Fred Kofman speak to this reality and encourage policymakers to avoid piecemeal approaches rooted in fragmentation, competition and reactiveness. They also remind us that our most important problems are complex and resistant to simple, linear solutions.

    What is the alternative? First, we need to understand that the factors that produce low test scores are broad and complex. The solutions are often daunting, and solutions require extraordinary focus, significant resources, passionate commitment and considerable time.

    Second, we need to reject radical and quick-fix solutions that are not supported by research, that divert attention and resources away from the real problems and that unfairly punish committed and talented educators.

    Third, we need to recognize that the relative wealth or poverty of children, while only one factor, is very important and does matter in how we interpret test results and school accountability. Our political leaders, education officials, media and entire education community can contribute by focusing on long-term, systemic solutions so that all children have the chance to come to school ready to learn. The components of such a system would recognize and respond to the relationship among family, school and social needs: prenatal care, early childhood and parent education; quality instruction; high expectations for all students; fair accountability systems for all schools; job training and placement for adults; and affordable housing.

    Avoiding the Mismatch
    By framing the challenge in this manner, we have a better chance to mobilize leadership within the broader community, focus resources on systemic solutions and avoid the rhetoric and blame that obscure the real problems. In doing so, we can also avoid the pitfall that Stanford University professor Larry Cuban warned of 10 years ago: "The risks involved with a lack of understanding [about school reform] include pursuing problems with mismatched solutions, spending energies needlessly and accumulating despair."

    By combining dollars and sense, we can more nimbly navigate the slippery slopes of testing and accountability, interpret test results fairly, identify and commit to realistic solutions and move toward the shared community goal--higher achievement for all students.

    Don Lifto is superintendent of Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District, 3300 Centry Ave. North, White Bear Lake, MN 55110. E-mail: