LEAP-Ing toward Accountability? Ideology, Practice, and the Voices of Louisiana Educators

Article excerpt

Louisiana educators at an urban K-5 school participated in a two-year study to share their experiences related to the implementation of a state high-stakes testing program (LEAP 21) that is used to make promotion decisions in grades 4 and 8. Observations, document analysis, and interviews were used to study the development of attitudes, perceptions, and practices related to the use of and consequences emanating from this testing practice. It was found that the state test has far-reaching effects on teaching, curriculum, school climate, students, parents, and school administration. The ideology of testing as a positive reform idea and the practice of testing as a constant and tangible threat, form the two poles of an experiential field that these educators encounter as figure and ground. The avoidance of failure and the threat of failure push these educators toward an ideological commitment to testing.

Key words: High Stakes Tests, Accountability, Testing Programs, Academic Achievement, Student Evaluation, and Teacher Attitudes

Introduction: New Millenialist Rhetoric or the Continuing Crusade?

   Even with your parents' best example and your teachers' best
   efforts, in the end it is your work that determines how much and
   how well you learn. When you work to your full capacity, you can
   hope to attain the knowledge and skills that will enable you to
   create your future and control your destiny. If you do not, you
   will have your future thrust upon you by others. A Nation at Risk
   (1983)

In the early years of the new American Republic, the desire for universal schooling (at least universal for white males) represented the seeds of a new civic faith in the power of schooling to meld the unceasing waves of immigrants with an emerging American ideology grounded in capitalism, Protestantism, and republicanism (Kaestle & Foner, 1983). As the inheritor of strong Calvinist traditions, Horace Mann, himself a lapsed Puritan, adopted a revivalist rhetoric based on individual initiative to sell his Crusade for Common Schools to all individuals and socio-economic groups willing to listen, from the elite northeastern Brahmin seeking property insurance against the perceived threat of an uneducated immigrant rabble, to the Irish and Jewish immigrants of Boston and New York trying to leverage access through education to some semblance of prosperity and equality. The dream of universal schooling had something for everybody, and the faith in the power of education to deliver a better life would become the secular American religion, even today remaining largely unchallenged even if not entirely believed.

If the secular faith in education developed during the last century eventually lapsed into an implacable orthodoxy, as some critics have contended, our most recent American socio-economic initiatives restore a reformist vision that is no less sweeping, or grandiose perhaps, than the millennialist dreams of our Puritan forefathers or the Common School crusaders of the 19th Century. Internationally, America is engaged in a struggle to maintain, far into the future, market supremacy in the global economy, a supremacy that will be depend upon continued increases in productivity that must be sustained with a shrinking supply of renewable resources. This new American mission, sustained by the moral and nationalistic fervor that embodies our political legacy, is mirrored in the most recent educational reform crusade to establish world-class education standards for knowledge productivity and to establish accountability measures to make sure those standards are maintained.

This effort began in earnest in 1983, with the wide circulation of A Nation at Risk, a broadside against American public education that announced the condition of American schools constituted a form a "unilateral economic disarmament." Building on the sentiments and recommendations of that document, the Charlottesville Education Summit in 1989 laid out the road map for achieving high standards and educational accountability measures. …