Common Core Watch

In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published what was probably the most influential study in our eighteen-year history: The Proficiency Illusion. Using data from state tests and NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress, our partners at NWEA estimated the “proficiency cut scores” of most of the states in the country. We expected to find a race to the bottom during the No Child Left Behind era; instead we found a walk to the middle. Importantly, though, we also demonstrated the vast discrepancies from state to state—and within states, from subject to subject and even grade to grade—when it came to what counted as “proficient.”  Checker and I wrote in the foreword:

What does it mean for standards-based reform in general and NCLB in particular? It means big trouble—and those who care about strengthening U.S. K–12 education should be furious. There’s all this testing—too much, surely—yet the testing enterprise is unbelievably slipshod. It’s not just that results vary, but that they vary almost randomly, erratically, from place to place and grade to grade and year to year in ways that have little or nothing to do with true differences in pupil achievement. America...

With the end of the school year fast approaching and the annual testing window closing, we can make some preliminary judgments about what's signal and what's noise in the debate over parents opting their children out of state assessments. There have been missteps and lessons for those on both sides of the issue. Four have struck me hard.

1) Respect parental choice. Education reformers who support testing may not agree with parents' decision to opt out. But it's senseless to argue that parents know best when it comes to choosing their child's school, yet are ill-informed when it comes to opting out. Parental choice is like free speech; the test of your belief is whether you still support it when you dislike how it's used. My fellow U.S. News contributor Rick Hess writes that education reformers have dismissed test refusers as "conspiracy theorists and malcontents." That overstates things, but no matter. Those of us who value testing need to do a better job of explaining to unhappy parents what's in it for them. But we also must respect parental prerogative, whether or not we like where it leads.

2) Don't follow the money. Parents have every...

With little fanfare, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) last month released a draft of its new “School Quality Snapshot”—Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s bid to evaluate each of Gotham’s more than 1,800 schools based on “multiple measures.” The DOE’s website invites public comment on the new reports until May 8. Here’s mine:

I confess I wasn’t the biggest fan of the single-letter-grade school report cards of the Bloomberg-Klein era. But as a signaling device to schools and teachers about what mattered to the higher-ups at the DOE’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters, they were clear and unambiguous: Raise test scores, but most importantly raise everyone’s test scores. With 85 percent of a school’s grade based on test scores—and 60 percent of the total based on test score growth—the report cards, for good or for ill, left little room for doubt that  testing was king. Valorizing growth was an earnest attempt to measure schools’ contributions to student learning, not merely demographics or zip code.

Fariña, whose contempt for data I’ve remarked upon previously, values “trust.” You may worry if your child can’t read or do math. So does Chancellor Fariña, sort of. But she deeply cares if “teachers trust the...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report.

I wanted to hate this book.

I’m a bit of an education technology skeptic, but I come by it honestly. No field overpromises and underdelivers more than education. And nowhere within education is that more true than among education tech’s various cheerleaders. For years, we’ve heard innovators, disruptors, and paradigm shifters natter on about twenty-first-century skills, flipped classrooms, and the “school of one.” Meanwhile, the experience of school for most kids remains the same, with the same mediocre outcomes year after year. Read my lips: No new TED Talks.

So I confess that I opened Greg Toppo’s The Game Believes in You with an arched eyebrow. I’m not ready to abandon my skepticism entirely, but Toppo made a persuasive case that games do many of the things we expect schools and teachers to do—differentiate instruction, gather data, and assess performance—and very, very well.

He started to win me over by not making the standard, clichéd education tech enthusiast’s argument about student engagement and “meeting the children where they are.” I don’t think...

The testing “opt-out” movement is testing education reform’s humility.

The number of students not participating in state assessments is large and growing. In one New York district, 70 percent of students opted out; in one New Jersey district, it was 40 percent.

Some reporting makes the case that this phenomenon is part of a larger anti-accountability, anti-Common Core story. Some reformers, it seems to me, believe opting out is the result of ignorance or worse.

Participants are routinely cast as uninformed or irrational. Amanda Ripley implied that opting out of testing is like opting out of vaccines and lice checks. New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch argued, “We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up…we should not refuse to take the test.” A column in the Orlando Sentinel argued we’d “lost our minds” and that the “opt-out movement has officially jumped...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Wanna opt out of tests? Try this instead"

There’s a bracing moment early in the 1991 movie Grand Canyon. A tow truck driver played by Danny Glover miraculously appears to rescue a stranded motorist played by Kevin Kline, who is being terrorized by thugs on a deserted Los Angeles street. Glover’s character appears, calmly hooks up the disabled car to his rig, and appeals to the gun-toting gang leader to let him and Kline go on their way.

“I'm gonna grant you that favor, but tell me this,” the gang leader says after a tense standoff, reminding the tow truck operator that he’s calling the shots. “Are you asking me as a sign of respect? Or are you asking because I've got the gun?”

“You ain't got the gun,” Glover replies, “we ain't having this conversation.”

I think of this scene every time I read a story about the “opt-out movement”—parents and others protesting the distorting effects of standardized testing in schools by refusing to let their children take the tests. Opt-out parents believe they have a gun pointed at testing. They might be right. But the opt-out movement...

A new report by a Harlem-based parent advocacy group calls on New York City charter schools to reduce their long waiting lists by “backfilling,” or admitting new students whenever current ones leave. The report from Democracy Builders estimates that there are 2,500 empty seats in New York City charter schools this year as a result of students leaving and not being replaced the following year.

It’s a deeply divisive issue within the charter sector. When transient students (those most likely to be low-performing) leave charter schools and are not replaced, it potentially makes some charters look good on paper through attrition and simple math: Strugglers leave, high performers stay, and the ratio of proficient students rises, creating an illusion of excellence that is not fully deserved. Charters should not be rewarded, the backfillers argue, merely for culling their rolls of the hardest to teach or taking advantage of natural attrition patterns.

Fair enough, although there’s a distasteful, internecine-warfare quality to all of this: Charters that backfill resent the praise and glory heaped upon those who do not, and seek to cut them down to size. Traditional schools hate...

My U.S. News column this week is sure to raise hackles. But that’s only because anytime you put the words “Eva” and “Moskowitz” adjacent to each other, you’re sure to upset either fans or haters of the polarizing founder of New York’s Success Academies. 

Much has been written by me and others at Fordham about the stellar results achieved by Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter schools and the controversial tactics used to achieve them. This isn’t an attempt to re-litigate any of those arguments. How Moskowitz runs her schools is of enormous importance to education policy advocates and activists, but most parents simply don’t care. Indeed, I’m tempted to suggest the secret of Moskowitz’s success is that she may have a better grasp of what parents want than just about anyone in education today. From the piece:

For inner-city moms and dads who have been disappointed by unsafe schools, chronic failure, and limited educational opportunities, questions about schools come down to three: Is my child safe? Is my child behaving? Is my child learning? Moskowitz can answer affirmatively—and accurately--for all three.

Having taught in a troubled South Bronx elementary...

There used to be a wry and mildly provocative blog called “Stuff White People Like.” Briefly popular in its heyday, it was described by the New Republic as a “piquant satire of white liberal cultural mores and hypocrisies.” The site’s creator stopped updating it a few years back after landing a book deal. But if it were still active, “opting out of tests” might have been right up there with craft beer, farmers’ markets, NPR, and Wes Anderson movies on that list of mores. Maybe hypocrisies, too.

A list compiled by the teachers’ union in New Jersey, where PARCC testing began earlier this month, claims that there have been more than thirty-five thousand test refusals statewide. On the order of one million young New Jerseyans are supposed to take the test, yet the state data documenting how many of them opted out won’t be available for at least a month. An informal analysis of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)’s list, however, shows that the highest numbers of test refusals are concentrated in communities that are affluent, left-leaning, and heavily white. 

A blue state with a Republican governor, New Jersey features a mix of affluent suburbs...

Last week, I complained that Eva Moskowitz and other reformers weren’t being fair when they described schools as “persistently failing” because they didn’t get many of their students to the ambitious levels built into the Common Core. This is how I concluded:

The move to higher standards means that we need to recalibrate our rhetoric and, more importantly, our approach to school accountability. In the low-standards days, it was perfectly legitimate to call out schools that couldn’t get all or most of their students to minimal levels of literacy and numeracy. It simply doesn’t work to similarly defame schools that don’t get all of their students “on track for college and career.” It’s a much higher bar and a much longer road.

But reform critics aren’t any better when it comes to playing games with the new standards. Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss, for example, continue to peddle the notion that the Common Core is developmentally inappropriate because it expects all students to be able to read simple passages by the end of kindergarten. Perhaps without knowing it, they’re making the same mistake as Moskowitz and...

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