Common Core Watch

In
the discussion about ESEA reauthorization, people on both sides of the aisle
have recognized the importance of setting rigorous standards aligned to
college- and career-readiness expectations. The Obama Administration has, for
instance, required that states adopt college-
and career-ready standards as part of its ESEA waiver process. Similarly,
Republican-sponsored ESEA reauthorization proposals (which Mike wrote
about in a post
yesterday) also ask states to set college- and
career-readiness standards for students.

While
this focus on setting clear and sufficiently rigorous standards is important,
it is also insufficient. After all, if we’ve learned anything from 10 years of
NCLB implementation, it’s that the act of setting standards doesn’t translate
to increased student achievement unless those standards are meaningfully implemented
in the classroom. And, one of the most important things for states to do to
ensure strong implementation is to hold students accountable for actually
learning the content laid out in the standards.

While
the focus on setting clear and sufficiently rigorous standards is important,
it is also insufficient.

Unfortunately,
over the past 10 years, too many states—even those with reasonably rigorous
standards—have asked very little of students on statewide assessments. In fact,
Fordham’s 2007 “Proficiency Illusion” report found that “the central flaw in
NCLB is that it allows each state to set its own definition of what constitutes
‘proficiency.’” And so, as we look towards...

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 Critics
of “bubble tests” rejoice! The campaign against the use of multiple choice
questions in state tests may finally be turning the tide. But, on the eve of
this victory, it’s worth pausing to ask: is this actually a good thing for
those of us who care about smart, efficient, and effective accountability
systems?

Details continue to trickle in about the PARCC
and SMARTER Balanced assessment consortia plans for their summative ELA and
math assessments. Catherine Gewertz has dug into the RFPs for both consortia
and shared some of her findings in an article published in Education Week yesterday. There’s a lot of
interesting information, including the fact that both consortia appear to be
moving away from multiple choice questions in their test designs. Gewertz
explains:

Documents
issued by the two groups of states that are designing the tests show that they
seek to harness the power of computers in new ways and assess skills that
multiple-choice tests cannot…

While the plans offer few details about how
the new items will differ, or why it’s necessary to abandon multiple choice
questions entirely, people across the education world will no doubt celebrate
the demise of the multiple choice question.

Multiple choice items are, after all, the
assessment items everyone loves to hate. Critics on all sides of the education
debate deride “bubble tests” as the enemy of genuine learning and believe that
...

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In
all the excitement in the buildup to the New
Hampshire primary, one important educational
development seems to have gotten overshadowed. Last week, a New Hampshire law allowing parents to demand
alternatives to curricular materials that they find objectionable took effect.
It could have far reaching consequences not just in the Granite State but—if it
catches on—for schools across the country.

Specifically,
the law (which was passed over the governor’s veto) requires all districts to
adopt a policy that:

“…include[s] a provision requiring the parent or legal guardian
to notify the school principal or designee in writing of the specific material
to which they object and a provision requiring an alternative agreed upon by
the school district and the parent, at the parent’s expense, sufficient to
enable the child to meet state requirements for education in the particular
subject area.”
Do parents not have a right to
ask that assignments not insult their beliefs and teachings?

In
a post on Curriculum Matters last week, Erik Robelen explained
that New Hampshire Governor John Lynch “said the measure was too vague about
what might be deemed objectionable and would prove burdensome to school
districts. He also said it risked stifling teachers, who might shy away from
exposing students to ‘new ideas and critical thinking’ for fear of sparking
complaints.”

Governor
Lynch went on to say that...

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iPod Sad Face
Photo by Joel Washing

Two months ago, Apple celebrated the 10th anniversary of the
release of the iPod. Sunday, we will “celebrate” the 10th birthday of NCLB.

The iPod is universally seen as a game changer—something
that not only transformed the way we listen to music, but that changed the
music industry itself.

Few would say the same about the transformative power of
NCLB.

Yet, what if the iPod hadn’t evolved in the ten years since
its initial release? What if, after Steve Jobs released the 2001 version—the
first-generation iPod—the different divisions at Apple couldn’t come to
agreement about how it should evolve?

As one tech-expert explained:

[The iPod] debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only,
FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and
5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows
version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod
debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If
Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in
2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop.

The transformative power of the iPod was unleashed not by
its...

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A
few weeks ago, Diane Ravitch posted a challenge on Twitter:

“I
challenge anyone who supports the current testing regime to take the 12th grade
test for graduation and release the results to the media.”

The
tweet was a response to a post published by Valerie Strauss in early December that
told the story of a prominent and, by all accounts, very successful Florida school board
member who took a state ELA and math test and publicized his results. (He
earned 17 percent in math, 62 percent in reading.) His experience caused him to
question to validity of using tests as part of a statewide accountability
system. He said:

“It
makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s
entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world
functioning…I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test]
in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals
who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

Strauss
agreed and concluded:

“There
you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven
education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective
and aren’t really accountable.”

The
post and Ravitch’s challenge set off a firestorm of anti-testing vitriol. This
was proof, people argued, that “corporate-driven” standards- and
accountability-driven reforms should be abandoned.

Intrigued,
...

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I believe that the right combination of rigorous standards, effective assessments, and strong implementation can transform teaching and drive outstanding student achievement.

But we have a long road ahead to reach that goal. The quality of state standards has been all over the map and implementation of those standards has been mixed at best. Now that nearly every state has adopted the Common Core, states have a chance to reboot and to get standards- and assessment-driven reform right.

To get there we will have to find the right answers to some key questions. How do we ensure the assessment consortia develop the rigorous assessments we need? Will state-driven professional development be focused where it needs to be? Will states focus too much on mandating curricular and instructional materials? Not enough? And, most importantly, will district leaders and teachers embrace the new standards and drive the classroom-level changes we need? Here, I hope to explore these questions and more.

But first a few answers about how I ended up as editor of Common Core Watch: I’m a Connecticut-based education policy analyst who’s been committed to and working in education for 15 years. I began as a classroom teacher, taught both middle and high school and served as a high school department chair. I currently work as a senior director here at Fordham, leading all of our projects related to standards. This is my second stint at Fordham—I worked here from 2003-2005, but left...

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If you’re to believe the rhetoric around Common Core, these new college- and career-ready standards are poised to usher in major education changes—changes that will help better prepare American students for the rigors of university coursework and the workplace.

On the other hand, if you’re to read individual states’ own descriptions of the differences between the Common Core and existing ELA and math standards, the changes seem far less dramatic.

Since they have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), nearly every state has undertaken some kind of review that compared existing ELA and math standards to the CCSS. And, almost without exception, these comparisons found near-perfect alignment between the CCSS and state ELA and math standards.

A Tennessee’s curriculum and assessment “crosswalk,” for example, found that “97 percent of the CCSS ELA standards have a match in Tennessee’s ELA standards, with 90 percent being rated an excellent or good match.” On the math side, Tennessee found that there are “no grade-level difference[s] in Kindergarten and only a 1 percent difference in 1st grade…” Similar comparisons by state departments of education around the country have found similar levels of alignment. (This despite the fact that our own analysis of state ELA and math standards found significant differences between a majority of state standards and the CCSS.)

There are several problems with these crosswalks and their findings.

For starters, these crosswalk comparisons too often lose the forest for the trees, focusing on narrow and sometimes...

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“Believing we can improve schooling with more tests,” Robert
Schaeffer of FairTest once argued, “is like believing you can make
yourself grow taller by measuring your height.”

It’s a great line. Such statements are the seductive battle cries of
the anti-standards and anti-assessment crowd. But is there any reason
behind this kind of rhetoric?

Parents rarely complain that their young babies are being weighed
and measured too much—even though it can create an extra burden in an
often stressful time in their lives. That’s not because parents naively
believe these basic tests will make their babies grow faster or
taller, but rather because they trust that their doctor will use the
data from these and other tests to flag early problems and develop
individualized plans to help their children thrive.

Of course, education assessments—particularly end-of-year summative
assessments—are far more complicated than scales. But the purpose of
tests in school is no different: to flag problems early and often so
that they can be addressed before they become lifelong issues.

In education, like in medicine, there are unintended consequences to
relying on a limited number of tests in a narrow range of subjects.
According to a report
released by Common Core last week, 76 percent of teachers feel that
critical subjects like science, history, and art are being “crowded out
by extra attention being paid to math and language arts,” and 93
...

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Common Core added an important piece to the mounting evidence that
curriculum continues to narrow at the expense of vital academic subjects
with yesterday’s release
of survey data from 1,001 third through 12th-grade teachers. Fully
two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that extra attention to math and
language arts is crowding out other subjects, with the sentiment
particularly strong among elementary-school teachers. Of those who saw
the curriculum narrowing, 93 percent pointed to state tests as the
primary culprits.

Focusing on math and reading at the expense of subjects like science
and social studies requires serious scrutiny, and Common Core should be
applauded for bringing more attention to the issue. Critics of
test-based accountability will be quick to cite the survey as evidence
of the deleterious effects of testing, but the numbers tell a more
complicated story. 90 percent of teachers said that inclusion in state
testing results in a subject being taken more seriously. Of those who
reported crowding out, 60 percent said that the increased focus on math
and language arts boosted test scores and 46 percent agreed that it
resulted in improved skills and knowledge. Is the problem testing
itself, or that test-based accountability is so narrowly focused in most
states?

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No matter where you live, chances are it’s a Common Core state. In
total, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common
Core and are developing plans to implement those standards over the next
several years. While much of the work around implementation is taking
place behind the closed doors of state education departments, the state
Race to the Top applications and the more recent ESEA waivers provide a
window into where states are prioritizing their time and focusing their
resources. Not surprisingly, all states have some kind of plan to align
curriculum, assessment, and professional development around these new
standards. But it’s far from certain whether most states will get it
right.

Below are three ways states can ensure that these newly adopted standards translate to clear student achievement outcomes:

1. Clearly define the student
learning outcomes to which all students will be held accountable once
the CCSS-aligned assessments come down the pike.

Perhaps the most important thing that a state department of education can do for classroom teachers is to clearly
define the student learning outcomes to which students will be held.
The Common Core Standards for ELA and math get us partway there, but
they, like all standards, don’t go far enough. For instance, the
following are three standards from sixth, seventh, and eighth grade,
respectively.

RL.6.1. Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text

...
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