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Volume I, Number 3, March, 2003

No child left

© 2003, Scott Thompson, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact Scott Thompson for information.

Children Get Left Behind
When High Stakes
Are Confused
With High Leverage

by Scott Thompson (about the author)

Most everyone across the political spectrum would agree that the heart of educational improvement is the improvement of teaching and learning. Many would also agree that this progress must be viewed through the lens of equity. This is the purported intent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It seems to me that those who crafted this legislation and those who must grapple with its influence would do well to remember that even the best of intentions can lead to unintended consequences – consequences that may not be apparent in the short run, but that in the long run can be adverse, or even devastating, in their effects.

We need to take both a deeper and longer view and ask, Where will an approach to educational accountability that is tied to annual standardized testing take us?  One powerful set of lenses for gaining a deeper perspective on these issues is provided by systems thinking.  The disciplines of organizational learning – systems thinking being chief among them – provide the concepts and tools for uncovering the underlying dynamics that cause complex human systems, such as school districts and multinational corporations, to behave the way they do.  This way of thinking and taking action has been evolving over many decades, but it reached its widest audience with the 1990 publication of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.1

Shifting the Burden

Among the systems thinking tools are systems archetypes, which are patterns of counterproductive organizational behavior that are repeated in diverse contexts. Because these patterns play out under the surface, they are seldom recognized, which essentially dooms people and organizations to blindly repeat them. Systems theorists have identified at least a dozen systems archetypes.2 One that is especially applicable with respect to test-based accountability in general and to NCLB in particular is called “Shifting the Burden.”

Daniel Kim, publisher of The Systems Thinker, uses an aspect of the Helen Keller story to illustrate this archetype.3 Because of her blindness and deafness, Keller’s parents had a tendency to rush to her aid with every problem she faced, and it’s easy enough to sympathize with their inclination to help their daughter. But Keller may never have realized her potential had another person, with a very different approach, not become a part of her story. Keller’s teacher, Ann Sullivan, saw that she must not allow her student’s disabilities to prevent Keller from becoming self-reliant. Keller, of course, went on to graduate from Radcliffe College and to become an author and role model for people with disabilities and for many others.

Kim explains, “Helen Keller’s story is much more than an inspirational human interest story; it illustrates a pervasive dynamic that is rooted in an archetypal structure. The well-intentioned actions of her parents shifted the burden of responsibility for Helen’s welfare to them.”4

Shifting the burden takes place when an obvious “solution” is used to relieve what is perceived as a problem, but is actually only a symptom of the problem. Kim observes that “these symptomatic solutions have two specific negative effects. First, they divert attention away from the real or fundamental source of the problem. More subtly, symptomatic solutions cause the viability of the fundamental solution to deteriorate over time, reinforcing the perceived need for more of the symptomatic solution.”5 Shifting the burden, in other words, is an approach that employs short-term remedies at the expense of long-term solutions.

The Testing Bandwagon

This archetype, I believe, provides a map that plots the eventual destination of the testing bandwagon. Shifting the burden, like all the systems archetypes, is a tool for probing assumptions. What are the assumptions at work in test-based accountability? It is assumed, correctly I believe, that on the whole – and most acutely in areas of concentrated poverty – our public schools are not enabling students to achieve at levels that will assure their success in life and work.

The trouble is that the burden is being shifted. Test scores are the symptom, not the underlying problem.

It is further assumed that the basic problem is low test scores, or, if not the scores themselves, then a level of learning that can best be tracked by test scores. Other assumptions flow from these. If the problem is best described by low test scores, then we need regular testing both to spur and to monitor results on standardized tests. A whole system of accountability is then built around test scores.

The trouble is that the burden is being shifted. Test scores are the symptom, not the underlying problem. And while strategies aimed at raising test scores will probably result in higher test scores, the unintended consequences of this symptomatic “solution” will be harmful, if not toxic, to schools and students in the long run. Test-based accountability assumes that higher test scores equal better learning, but researchers have found that it is possible to raise test scores without improving the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. In fact, it is possible to raise test scores by lowering the quality of teaching and learning.

The situation is perhaps analogous to farmers being rewarded or punished according to the annual weight of their animals. If the stakes were high enough, farmers would find ways to boost animal weight prior to the annual “weigh in.” It is not difficult to imagine how the short-term success of tactics for increasing animal weight could have deadly long-term effects both on the animals and farm productivity.

Some research is finding increased student dropout rates attributable to high-stakes testing programs.6 This is especially true for students who don’t perform well on standardized tests, who are retained in grade, or who are turned off by the test-prep, drill-and-kill environments that sprout like mushrooms wherever testing is overemphasized. We know how devastating the consequences of dropping out can be. In 1998, for example, the unemployment rate for dropouts was 75 percent higher than for high school graduates.7 Those students who remain in school may well see their scores rise, but at the high price of receiving an education that doesn’t begin to tap into their potential or to truly prepare them for living and working in a world that grows more complex by the hour.

Here is how Anthony Alvarado, Chancellor of Instruction for San Diego City Schools, stated the problem in an interview with Michael Fullan:

“When you set a target and ask for big leaps in achievement scores, you start squeezing capacity in a way that gets into a preoccupation with tests, perhaps bordering on cheating. You cut corners in a way that ends up diminishing learning. That is the antithesis of [what we want].”8

It is argued by the proponents of test-based accountability that you can’t make continual progress unless you measure progress. Fair enough, but why do we then assume that an annual standardized test is best suited to the task? Performance assessments can provide students and teachers with much more timely and relevant feedback that can be used for focusing and improving instruction throughout the school year.

What do standardized tests actually test? Do we know of living-wage jobs that require anything like test-taking ability? But high quality jobs and civic participation in our democratic society often do involve solving complex problems, working on projects in teams, and the ability to perform tasks requiring analysis, synthesis, interpretation, communication, and imagination – things that standardized tests are least able to assess.

This is not an argument for the elimination of standardized testing. It is an argument for recognizing the limitations of such tests and their consequent inadequacy for being the sole driver of an educational accountability system.

So, if low test scores are symptoms and not the underlying problem, then what is the “real” problem? The fundamental challenge in public education, it seems to me, is that our nation is now calling upon our systems of education to accomplish a goal that these systems were never designed to address. That goal is to enable all students – students across the socioeconomic spectrum – to graduate from high school prepared for college-level work or living-wage jobs in a rapidly changing economy. It is not possible to achieve this goal without systematically and systemically building the capacities of educators and educational leaders to accomplish what has never previously been accomplished in public education. Meeting this challenge in our nation’s 80,000 schools will require fundamentally changing the policies, practices, and structures of school systems. Increasing the regimen of standardized tests, in and of itself, does none of this. In fact, if the stakes around standardized tests are high and if the accountabilities are exclusively focused on the tests, they can have the effect of pressuring teachers to narrow the curriculum and reduce their instructional practice to mere test prepping.

What may seem paradoxical, given my argument above, is that I believe standards, assessment, and accountability can be high-leverage strategies for tackling the actual underlying educational challenge of our times, but not as they are popularly defined in most political circles. As I have argued elsewhere, we need to distinguish the authentic standards movement from its “evil twin,” which could also be called high-stakes, standardized, test-driven reform.9

Authentic Standards-based Accountability

What would be the characteristics of an authentic standards-based accountability system? I draw the following characteristics from actual school districts:

• Teachers, parents, and others have actively participated in developing common learning standards, and they continue to participate in the ongoing refinement of the standards.

• Student assessments are aligned with the standards, and students are given numerous opportunities on various kinds of assessments to demonstrate that a standard has been met. No single test or assessment is used to determine whether a standard has been met, whether a student can be promoted to the next grade, whether a student can graduate, or whether a school will be designated as “low performing.” Assessments are used to diagnose students’ needs and to improve or adjust the instructional practice of their teachers. Multiple forms of student assessment in combination with other indicators are used to evaluate schools.

• The school system is investing heavily in high-quality professional development for teachers and principals, specifically supporting their efforts to enable all students to achieve high standards of learning.

• Persistently low-performing students are given the time, opportunity, and intensive, individualized support needed to improve their academic performance.

• The school district is accountable for giving persistently low-performing schools intensive assistance aimed at building school capacity for continuous improvement. These same schools are then accountable for meeting the educational needs of their students, but if they continue to fail their students after intensive intervention, they should be reconstituted.

• District resources are (re)allocated so that students who are most in need actually receive needed supports, including well qualified and well compensated teachers.

• The school system gathers multiple forms of data to improve school-level and district-level decision making, the targeting of resources, and program implementation.

• Parents and other community members are actively engaged at every stage of the district and school improvement process. This means that school system leaders are listening and responding to parent and community concerns and perspectives, as well as getting the district message out.

• District-level and school-level leaders throughout the system maintain a laser-like focus on teaching and learning and vigilantly guard against whatever would shift energies and resources elsewhere.

Unintended Consequences

NCLB/ESEA is more sharply focused on closing the achievement gap than any previous federal legislation, and that focus is crucial. But the long-term unintended consequences of a remedy based on a misdiagnosis can be destructive. What concerns me is not only the adverse consequences that the “evil twin” of test-based accountability is already having on teaching and learning, but also its potential for undermining authentic standards-based accountability, which may hold the highest leverage for developing systems of public education where all students encounter a rich and demanding curriculum and the quality of teaching and individualized support they need to master it.

It is perhaps fitting to conclude with Helen Keller’s own words: "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable." Those words were expressed by a mind that was nurtured and developed through an individualized, not standardized, education.


About the Author

Scott Thompson is Assistant Director of the Panasonic Foundation in Secaucus, N.J. and Editor of Strategies, an issues series the foundation publishes in cooperation with the American Association of School Administrators ( His writing on educational improvement has appeared in numerous publications, including Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, Education Week, and Educational Horizons. He is currently at work on a book, provisionally entitled Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Leadership for Educational Progress, under contract with Scarecrow Education Books. He can be reached at

1.Peter M. Senge (1990), The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday).

2.Senge (1990), pp. 94 - 113 and 378 - 90. See also Peter M. Senge, et. al. (1994), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization (New York: Currency Doubleday), pp. 121 - 50.

3.Daniel H. Kim (1992), Systems Archetypes I: Diagnosing Systemic Issues and Designing High-Leverage Interventions (Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications).

4.Kim (1992), p. 22.

5.Kim (1992)), p. 22.

6.See, for example, Maureen Kelleher (June 1999), “Dropout Rate Climbs as Schools Dump Truants,” Catalyst; and Walter M. Haney (1999), Supplementary Report on Texas Assessment of Academic Skills Exist Test (Los Angeles: Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund).

7.Joshua Benton and Roy Appleton (May 20, 2001), “Through the cracks – Texans who drop out face bleak futures defined by limitations,” Dallas Morning News.

8.Michael Fullan (2001), Leading in a Culture of Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), p. 63.

9.Scott Thompson (January 2001), “The Authentic Standards Movement and Its Evil Twin,” Phi Delta Kappan.

© 2003, Scott Thompson, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.

What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.