Grading ALEC’s “Report Card on American Education

Every year the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) issues a “Report Card on American Education.  ALEC is a partly libertarian, partly conservative—some would say right wing—not-for-profit that issues reports and writes model legislation in a number of policy areas, including education.  Its primary interests in education are the expansion of vouchers and charter schools and ridding public schools of unions.  It is funded in large part by the Charles G. Koch Foundation and other like-minded organizations. The 23rdedition of the Report Card was issued this past September.  

According to ALEC:

The education policy grade on each state’s Report Card is based on six factors: state academic standards, charter schools, home- school regulation burden, private school choice, teacher quality, and digital learning. Because the Education and Workforce Task Force at ALEC focuses the most on private school choice and charter schools, those factors were given double weight in the calculation over overall rank and grade. The weighted grades were converted into a GPA average and an individual rank [emphasis added]. 

Since most studies (including the most recent one from the National Center for Educational Statistics, which you can read here) conclude that charter schools do not outperform traditional schools it may seem puzzling that they get double weight in the rating system.  But at least ALEC is upfront about the fact that this methodology is without any analytic foundation:  it’s simply because charter schools, along with private school choice, is the focus of its Education and Workforce Task Force.

Here’s a quick look at the six factors ALEC uses for the Report Card and my own letter grade for each factor.  

State academic standards.  This is based exclusively on “the difference in the percentage of students considered proficient by the state exam and the percentage of students in that state who scored as proficient on NAEP.”  NAEP provides state-level reports for only two subjects—reading and math—and reports them for only three grades—4, 8, and 12.  Using only this measure to assess a state’s education system is a little like using only temperature to assess a patient’s health, and ignoring blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body mass index, and other vital measures.  In addition, because each state has its own methodology for selecting NAEP test-takers, across-state comparisons are iffy at best.

Moreover, ALEC is not clear on how it interprets these data.  If the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in a state is higher than the percentage scoring proficient or above on NAEP, does ALEC take that to mean that the state’s cut scores are set too low, or that the students are high scoring?  Alternatively, if the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in a state is lower than that state’s NAEP percentage, does that mean the state’s cut scores are too high or are its students underperforming?  We don’t know.  But in the end, it doesn’t matter anyway, because drawing either set of conclusions relies on each state’s assessments being perfectly aligned with NAEP so that the scores would be interchangeable.  That is not the case.

Grade:  F

Charter schools.  According to ALEC:

The charter school grade on the Report Card is based on a publication of the Center for Education Reform, which grades charter school laws across a series of factors. The Charter School Law Ranking and Scorecard takes into account features of a state’s charter law that influence how well charters are able to flourish, such as availability of independent authorizers, lack of growth caps, autonomous operation free from legal or regulatory red tape, and funding equity. The handful of states that have not yet passed a charter school law received Fs on their Report Cards. 

Alright, then, let’s take a look at how the Center for Education Reform (CER) grades charter school laws (you can read for yourself here).  CER evaluates state laws based on the extent to which they do the following:

  • Enable citizens to create schools that are independent from traditional school bureaucracies in oversight and operations.
  • Provide schools wide latitude to operate and innovate without onerous administrative rules and regulations, which dictate what they can do and how they can do it. 
  • Give parents numerous, meaningful school options, allowing them to provide their children with an education tailored to individual needs.

Notice the absence of any mention of oversight or accountability.  This is especially remarkable, because the first sentence that CER uses to introduce its guide to charter school laws is this:

The simple and original principle of charter schooling is that charter schools should receive enhanced operational autonomy in exchange for being held strictly accountable for the outcomes they promise to achieve [emphasis added]. 

But accountability plays no role in CER’s evaluation of state charter school laws.  Following CER’s lead, ALEC gives the highest rating to states that have the laxest laws governing the establishment of charter schools without regard to the quality of those schools.

Grade:  F

Home school regulation burden.  According to ALEC:

The policy grades in this category correspond to the Home School Legal Defense Association’s analysis of state laws, which categorizes the burdens states place on parents who wish to homeschool, from relatively-innocuous notice requirements, to high-regulatory environments that may make it difficult for parents who choose this form of education for their families. 

This groups places each state in one of four categories based on how restrictive or unrestrictive it is regarding home schooling.  The categories are:

  • States requiring no notice to homeschool
  • States with low regulation
  • States with moderate regulation
  • States with high regulation

California is a “low regulation” state and may be fairly unique among states in that homeschooling can be publicly subsidized through charter school enrollment.  All well and good, but because homeschoolers intentionally separate themselves from formal public education, laws regarding homeschooling have no place in an evaluation of a state’s public education system, unless the objective is to weaken that system.

Grade:  Not applicable

Private school choice.  This refers only to the availability of publicly funded vouchers to pay for private school education.  ALEC uses three criteria to evaluate private school choice:  size and scope (the bigger the better), purchasing power (the more the better for voucher recipients), and flexibility and freedom (the less regulation the better).

As with charter schools, ALEC couldn’t care less about the quality of the schools or programs that are supported by public dollars.  Accordingly, there is no need for assurances that taxpayer dollars are spent either appropriately or for schools and programs with at least a modicum of quality.

Grade:  F

Teacher quality.   ALEC punts entirely to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) by using its annual ranking of the states.  Without bothering to define what a high quality teacher is, NCTQ does not consider actual teacher quality in its rankings.  Instead, it ranks states on the basis of how closely their policies align with what NCTQ believes (rarely correctly) lead to high quality teachers.  These policies include differential pay, merit pay, and outcome-based accountability for teacher preparation programs, among other factors.

Regarding the teacher preparation programs, NCTQ has been taken to task by Diane Ravitch and others for its slip-shod methodology for evaluating teacher preparation programs.  Noting that NCTQ does not even visit the programs it evaluates and instead relies on course catalogues and Google searches, Linda Darling-Hammond says it’s like a restaurant reviewer reviewing a restaurant on the basis of its menu without ever tasting its food.  In reviewing NCTQ’s 2018 teacher preparation report, the National Education Policy Center wrote, “..the report has multiple logical, conceptual, and methodological flaws. Its rationale includes widely critiqued assumptions about the nature of teaching, learning, and teacher credentials. Its methodology, which employs a highly questionable documents-only evaluation system, is a maze of inconsistencies, ambiguities, and contradictions.”  You can read NEPC’s full report here.

Grade:  F

Digital learning.  ALEC uses the rankings of the “Digital Learning Report Card” produced by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush is the CEO). However, the report card has been removed from the foundation’s website, so its criteria and methodology cannot be reviewed.

Grade:  Incomplete

There you have it.  As a measure of actual school quality across the states, ALEC’s Report Card is an utter failure.  However, it is a good measure of how closely each state’s education policies align with ALEC’s misguided notion of good policy.  In that sense, a low grade is to be coveted.  California scores a D-.

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