Like most superintendents, I cared a lot about test scores. Too much, it turns out.

One of Paymon Rouhanifard’s earliest initiatives after becoming superintendent of Camden, New Jersey, schools in 2013 was to design a “school information card” that spelled out each school’s test scores in a family-friendly format. By the time he left the district this year, the cards were no longer being produced.

In this piece, delivered as a speech at the MIT School Access and Quality Summit on Tuesday, Rouhanifard explains why he did away with the cards against the advice of his team — and what that means, in his view, for the future of how children in high-need communities are educated. His personal evolution mirrors one that many in the education reform world are undergoing, as they increasingly reckon with the results of their own focus on test scores.

About five months ago, I stepped down from the best job I’ve ever had, superintendent of Camden, New Jersey. For those of you who don’t know much about Camden, it’s a big little city. There are about 80,000 residents. Fifteen thousand school-age children.

Similar to cities like Detroit, Camden has yet to recover from the postindustrial decline of the 1960s and 1970s. The challenges we inherited with our school system are rooted in decades of poverty, born out of centuries of injustice.

In March 2013, Gov. Chris Christie initiated a state intervention in Camden. And in August, I started as the first permanent superintendent subsequent to that very consequential change in governance. I was the 13th superintendent over the prior 16 years.

And that turnover was emblematic of the very problem we were aiming to address. Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing. Whiplashing changes were the norm. I saw the vestiges in just about every classroom I visited.

Our theory of action was relatively straightforward, and one we continually discussed with our community.

We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools, but one that instead focused on regulating the system. That involved us asking high quality non-profit charter organizations to help turn around existing schools and serve our broader city as neighborhood schools, all while steadily improving our district schools on a parallel track.

During that time, I’m proud of what we accomplished.

  •  We reduced the district’s dropout rate by almost 50 percent.
  •  We reduced suspensions by over 50 percent.
  •  We developed a common enrollment system that makes life easier for families.
  •  We initiated over $340 million in capital repairs to dramatically improve neglected facilities.

Perhaps what I’m most proud of is how we went about our work. We built large coalitions of support, from our elected officials to community leaders to parents and students. While there was certainly some pushback, we undeniably left with more allies than skeptics.

But what I want to discuss with you today is not how we got to this point, but how we can get significantly get better moving forward.

This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience — specifically, how I came to discover the underpinnings of our work are fraught with complications, requiring change and improvement.

What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make. Systems we utilize to evaluate schools, teachers, and students. Just about every person in this room regularly engages with these data.

My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us. What they didn’t tell us. And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on two state tests.

So I’ll skip to the part where about two years ago I made the decision to do away with our school information card, Camden’s school report card, an accountability tool that many other cities utilize in some shape or form.

I’m intentionally using the word “I” because, well, every last person on our remarkably talented leadership team was against it. And I can understand that on many levels.

There’s a formidable intellectual argument driving state test-based accountability systems.

“A Nation at Risk” begat a decades-long effort to turn the flood lights on within high poverty school districts. Race to the Top ensured we not only knew the gaps in student achievement, but we had a plan of action. In many respects, this was critically important work.

Accountability shouldn’t be a four-letter word. The Camden school district we inherited had grappled with challenges of many varieties – fiscal, operational, to go along with teaching basic student reading, writing, and math skills. There simply wasn’t a meaningful focus on outcomes of any kind.

Across the country, we’ve attempted to create a KPI – a Key Performance Indicator – to ensure we’re tracking progress against one or two units of measurement. We focus our energies there. I get it.

When I was running the Office of Portfolio Management for the New York City Department of Education, I was a devout believer that every decision should be predicated on math and literacy tests.

But today I want to push a bit on this conventional wisdom – and challenge what I believe to be a shared set of assumptions within the education reform establishment that has gone mostly unquestioned. I want to explain why I felt eliminating our School Information Card in Camden was a very small step in the right direction.

My thinking began to evolve as a function of simple, passing conversations I had with a variety of different people in Camden. I’ll share a few snapshots. And while I’m certainly paraphrasing here, they capture the essence of what I heard.

  •  One of our very best eighth-grade math teachers tells me: “All I’m doing is collecting formative assessment data. Multiple times per month. I hardly have the time to analyze the data. Can we please just slow down the rapid assessment calendar?”
  •  In just about every high school student roundtable we held – and this is a self-selected, highly motivated group – a student would ask: “Superintendent, I love a good test, but all we’re doing is taking these multiple choice tests! Half the building shuts down and I can’t use the laptops in the library because they’re all being used for testing.”
  •  Questions I was asked by countless parents of middle and high school students: “How come there isn’t enough time in the day for Global Studies? Why don’t we offer a second foreign language? Or have year-round art and music?”
  •  The head of a charter organization once said to me: “It’s hard not to notice almost every school receiving a top rating on the School Information Card has a lower percentage of students with disabilities than ours. To meet our students’ needs, our school must invest in mental health clinics and other wrap-around services – which don’t generate quick test results. But they’re the right thing to do. Yet we would face closure based on this system. Not to mention fall out of favor with foundations like the City Fund.”
  •  Lastly, the CEO of a curriculum provider once told me that when they are working with schools that do heavy test prep – and these are of course mostly urban charter schools – they are invariably asked how they can reduce the curriculum’s “scope and sequence” by one month to make room for their test prep schedule. One entire month.

These questions, of course, cut to the core of the testing culture we’ve created.

We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized. We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education, because we’ve placed most of our eggs in two baskets. We are implicitly encouraging schools to serve fewer English language learners and students with an IEP. We are spending less time on actual instruction, because that’s the system we’ve created.

I want to again be clear that the benefits of our current accountability constructs are real. In most of the schools I visit in Camden, there is a genuine drive for better math and literacy outcomes. This wasn’t the case just five years ago. And that applies to incredible efforts underway in New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, Newark, Denver, and many other cities over the past 10 to 15 years. There’s no question about it.

But I also believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits. That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs. And that there’s a third way approach, which I’ll get to in a moment.

It’s not uncommon for there to be formative or interim assessments every couple weeks in addition to weeks – sometimes months – of test prep in the late winter and early spring.

Even in some of our “highest performing schools,” there is insufficient access to foreign languages, the sciences, and the arts. And school budgets are not the primary driver of that.

And for our most vulnerable kids, we are assuming if test scores in two subjects don’t dramatically improve within a tight time horizon, we should throw the baby out with the bath water.

We’re not playing the long game for our kids.

That is why I made the decision to eliminate Camden’s School Information Card. They only fortified the drawbacks of our current system.

I’ll go out on a limb – most everyone in this room wouldn’t tolerate what I described for their own children’s school. Mostly affluent, mostly white schools shy away from heavy testing, and as a result, they are literally receiving an extra month of instruction – and usually with less overall time allotted to the school day.

I often share the “Is this OK for our own children” thought exercise with education reform friends and colleagues as it relates to testing, and it’s amazing how often I hear twisted logic.

Simply put: time spent on testing and test prep is not time spent on instruction. It’s time spent on testing. Often, we’ve become better at taking the assessments, but haven’t mastered the standards behind them.

The basic rule, what we would want for our own children, should apply to all kids.

What’s more, we say we’ve learned from No Child Left Behind, yet we invariably expect every three-year math and ELA proficiency curve to be on a slope to 100 percent.

When we do this, we incentivize very specific behavior – behavior that oversimplifies the challenges we’ve inherited. Challenges, again, born out of centuries of injustice that manifest themselves today through discrimination, over-criminalization, trauma, toxic stress, and the 30 million word gap. We’re not investing in mental health clinics. We cut scope and sequence in our curriculum. We forgo the sciences and the arts. School becomes less joyful.

As much as we’d like it to be, the public good that is education can’t be reduced to one or two data points measured in short time horizons. It’s so much more complex than that. This is, in essence, what Campbell’s Law teaches us. Donald Campbell, a social scientist, posited that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,” “the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Put more simply, when deeply complex social and policy decision-making is reduced to a target, the target ceases to be a good measure.

I’ve said enough calling out the challenges, so it’s only fair to suggest a course of action.

First, high-stakes testing should be a dipstick to measure systems. Most of the rest of the developed world functions this way.

States could administer standardized tests like NAEP – meaning random samplings every two to three years. This would suffice. We would know the gaps. We could address inequities.

Second, while we’re over-assessing, paradoxically, we actually don’t have enough assessments.

I’ll provide an example to make this more concrete: Most high school state tests don’t account for critical science subjects like physics and chemistry. So given we measure what we value, not surprisingly, the majority of high schools in New York City don’t even offer physics. Think about that – in the midst of a supposed national STEM movement, that is a reality in the largest city in our country.

And we must also find normed ways to assess art and music. A society without access to healthy art and music education is problematic for vast swaths of our economy.

Third, we must build smarter tests. Tests, that, for example, address current challenges with race and class bias. In Louisiana, State Superintendent John White has piloted an innovative new state assessment that uses passages from books that students have already been exposed to in class, as opposed to something that’s brand new and just for the test.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, tests should inform and guide our actions, and not compel them. This may sound like shades of grey, but it’s an important distinction. We need talented, thoughtful systems leaders who act with urgency, but don’t assume simple proficiency and growth scores in two subjects should immediately require structural change leading to seas of collateral damage and unintended consequences.

Altogether, the pursuit of better life outcomes for kids might just necessitate a slight depression in state test scores to focus more on instruction and other critical components of a child’s education. If life outcomes are indeed what we are about, we should welcome state test scores going down!

My bottom line is this: tests are critically important, particularly in math and literacy.

I’m not suggesting the pendulum should swing so far in the other direction. But two tests shouldn’t be what we are solving for day in and day out.

For years, we’ve found ourselves in a bitterly divisive discourse with entrenched camps. The political fights within education are well documented. We are prone to gravitating to echo chambers, dismissing the noise as political theater, filing the counter-arguments away as low expectations for children.

Here’s the thing: in my opinion, the strength of the education reform movement – the belief that we must fundamentally improve our country’s education systems – has little to do with dogma and ideology. Little to do with the policies we lead and the political battles we strive to win.

It is about the people themselves. It is about us and countless others who believe we must innovate. We must have higher expectations for children. We must strive for equity.

If you go back 20 years, it would have been hard to conceive of a gathering like this. Or the New Schools Venture Fund Summit. Or where the charter movement is today.

If we were to recognize this as our strength, then it would be easier to let go of dogma, challenge our assumptions with honesty and humility in constant pursuit of the truth. Of better ideas. Of higher educational attainment and income mobility for those born into poverty.

I’ll leave you with the most obvious advice you’ll hear today at this conference: you are a function of who you spend time with.

I was deeply shaped by the past five years because I was really in it. The best thing that ever happened to me – and the hardest – was being thrown into the deep end in Camden and left to my own devices.

I spent the vast majority of my time out of my echo chamber and in our community, in our schools. Football and basketball practices. Teacher and student roundtables. I wasn’t a great steward of our central office. I didn’t spend enough time with funders. Or with policymakers and think tanks. And that’s alright.

Being here today, I’m clearly making up for lost time.

I say this to say that we should spend more time with front-line practitioners. With people who disagree with us. While carrying a mindset of being open to disconfirming our most strongly held beliefs, rather than just affirming what we already believe to be true. This is certainly applicable to our broader, much more complex political divide.

Paymon Rouhanifard was the superintendent of schools in Camden, New Jersey from 2013 to June 2018.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.