Flypaper

A decade ago, U.S. education policies were a mess. It was the classic problem of good intentions gone awry.

At the core of the good idea was the commonsense insight that if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should set clear expectations for student learning, measure whether our kids are meeting those expectations, and hold schools accountable for their outcomes (mainly gauged in terms of academic achievement).

And sure enough, under the No Child Left Behind law, every state in the land mustered academic standards in (at least) reading and math, annual tests in grades 3–8, and some sort of accountability system for their public schools.

Unfortunately, those standards were mostly vague, shoddy, or misguided; the tests were simplistic and their “proficiency” bar set too low. The accountability systems encouraged all manner of dubious practices, such as focusing teacher effort on a small subset of students at risk of failing the exams rather than advancing every child’s learning.

What a difference a decade makes. To be sure, some rooms in the education policy edifice remain in disarray. But thanks to the hard work and political courage of the states, finally abetted by some...

If you care about state education policy and/or the new federal education law, you ought to spend some time doing three things. First, consider how the performance of schools (and networks of schools) needs to be assessed. Second, read the short Fordham report At the Helm, Not the Oar. Third, encourage your favorite state’s department of education to undertake an organizational strategic planning process.

All three are part of a single, important exercise: figuring out what role the state department of education must play in public schooling.

By now, everyone knows that ESSA returns to states the authority to create K–12 accountability systems. So it’s worth giving some thought to what, exactly, schools and districts should be held accountable for. What do we want them to actually accomplish?

But even if we get clear on the “what,” the “who” and “how” remain. Which entity or entities should be tasked with this work, and how should they go about it?

In At the Helm, which I co-wrote in 2014 with Juliet Squire, we argue that there are lots and lots of things handed to state departments of education (also known as state education agencies, or “SEAs”) that could be better achieved elsewhere....

Reformers always face backlash, no matter the realm. People and institutions, structures and routines, budgets and staffing arrangements—all are tailored for the status quo. Indeed, they define the status quo, and myriad interests are then enmeshed in keeping things the way they’ve always been. Plenty of people are undone by change, even the prospect of it, and plenty more find it hard to imagine something different from what they’re accustomed to.

The reformer’s job is to overcome all that in pursuit of some greater good. That impulse arises from the belief—and, one hopes, from ample evidence—that the status quo is failing in various ways to deliver the necessary results. But part of the pushback from aficionados of the status quo is a stout insistence that today’s results are actually fine, that the reformer is wrong to say that the status quo is failing, and that changing the present arrangement could well produce a worse result.

That’s been the story of education reform and its resisters as long as I’ve been around—dating back, at least, to the denial of Coleman’s findings in the sixties and seventies, the denunciation of A Nation at Risk in the eighties, and the recent insistence that adopting the Common Core...

Joanne Weiss

On February 2, I had the privilege of being a judge for the Fordham Institute’s ESSA Accountability Design Competition. It’s widely known that I’m a fan of using competition to drive policy innovation, and this competition did not disappoint. Fordham received a stunning array of proposals from teachers, students, state leaders, and policy makers.

But before we turn to the insights buried in these pages, I want to praise the competition’s conception, which mirrored the process that states should replicate as they design their own accountability systems. Contestants explained how their proposed accountability systems would support a larger vision of educational success and spur desired actions. They laid out their design principles—attributes like simplicity, precision, fairness, and clarity. They defined the indicators that should therefore be tracked, and they explained how those indicators would roll up into ratings of school quality. Finally, they laid out how each rating would be used to inform or determine consequences for schools. All decisions were explained in the context of how they would forward the larger vision.

Together, these proposals represent a variety of both practical and philosophical approaches to accountability system design. Here are the five major themes I found most noteworthy.

1. The...

Michael Hansen

I walked away from Fordham’s School Accountability Design Competition last Tuesday pleasantly surprised—not only at the variety of fresh thinking on accountability, but also at how few submissions actually triggered the “I think that’s illegal” response. I left encouraged at the possibilities for the future.

The problem of one system for multiple users

Having done some prior work on school accountability and turnaround, I took great interest in the designs that came out of this competition and how they solved what I’m going to call the “one-system-multiple-user” problem. Though the old generation of systems had many drawbacks, I see this particular problem as their greatest flaw and the area where states will most likely repeat the mistakes of the past.

Basically, the one-system-multiple-user problem is this: The accountability design is built with a specific objective in mind (school accountability to monitor performance for targeted interventions) for a single user (the state education office); but the introduction of public accountability ratings induces other users (parents, teachers, district leaders, homebuyers, etc.) to use the same common rating system. Where the problem comes in is that not all user groups have the same objective; indeed we expect them to have different purposes in...

The Fordham Institute’s recent accountability design competition put a lot of great ideas on the table. As states grapple with how to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we know a lot of their focus will be on assessment systems and how to balance growth and proficiency; that’s important work, and it’s required by the law, but it’s only part of the opportunity ESSA presents. The required assessments are all applied in third grade or later, but we all know that a substantial portion of the achievement gap opens well before third grade. So let’s not design accountability systems that look exclusively at the third grade and after. Instead, let’s design state accountability systems that create real accountability in grades K–2– and maybe even earlier—to keep educators focused on the importance of those years.

Under No Child Left Behind, state accountability fixated on the years from grades 3–12. While many local district decision makers understood the research about the importance of the early years, they also knew that test scores were the primary metric of their success, and that preschoolers were at least four years from taking accountability tests. In that time period, a district’s superintendent might change, or...

Nancy Doorey

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blog posts that will take a closer look at the findings and implications of Evaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments, Fordham’s new first-of-its-kind report.

Debates about testing—and state tests in particular—have reached new levels of intensity and rancor. While affecting only a fraction of the U.S. public schools population, the opt-out movement reflects a troubling trend for state and district leaders who rely on the tests to monitor their efforts to prepare all students to successfully transition to higher education or the workforce.  

The recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), like its NCLB predecessor, requires annual standardized testing in English language arts/literacy and mathematics in grades three through eight and once in high school. While ESSA contains some new flexibilities and even encourages use of much more than test scores to evaluate performance, states will continue to use—and the public will continue to debate—state tests.

And that’s exactly why Fordham’s new study and the companion study by HumRRO are so important. In a time of opt-out initiatives and heated debate, state decision-makers need to know whether a given test is worth fighting...

Reading

PARCC, Smarter Balanced get high marks for content and depth, fidelity to college and career readiness standards; ACT Aspire and MCAS score well for depth of knowledge but fall short on measuring some of the priority content on Common Core, according to Fordham Institute study.

Washington, D.C. (February 11, 2016)—The Thomas B. Fordham Institute today released the results of the first-ever comprehensive analysis of next generation assessments of English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA) and mathematics, which examined secure, un-released items from actual student test forms.

The study, Evaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments, found that PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments have the strongest matches to the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Criteria for Procuring and Evaluating High-Quality Assessment in both ELA/Literacy and mathematics. While ACT Aspire and MCAS both did well regarding the quality of their items and the depth of knowledge assessed, the panelists found that these two programs did not adequately assess—or may not assess at all—some of the priority content reflected in the Common Core standards in both...

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been evaluating the quality of state academic standards for nearly twenty years. Our very first study, published in the summer of 1997, was an appraisal of state English standards by Sandra Stotsky. Over the last two decades, we’ve regularly reviewed and reported on the quality of state K–12 standards for mathematicsscienceU.S. historyworld historyEnglish language arts, and geography, as well as the Common CoreInternational BaccalaureateAdvanced Placement and other influential standards and frameworks (such as those used by PISA, TIMSS, and NAEP). In fact, evaluating academic standards is probably what we’re best known for.

For most of the last two decades, we’ve also dreamed of evaluating the tests linked to those standards—mindful, of course, that in most places, the tests are the real standards. They’re what schools (and sometimes teachers and students) are held accountable for, and they tend to drive curricula and instruction. (That’s probably the reason why we and other analysts have never been able to demonstrate a close relationship between the quality of standards per se and changes in student achievement.) We wanted to know how well matched the assessments were to the standards, whether they were of high...

New York State education officials raised a ruckus two weeks ago when they announced that annual statewide reading and math tests, administered in grades 3–8, would no longer be timed. The New York Post quickly blasted the move as “lunacy” in an editorial. “Nowhere in the world do standardized exams come without time limits,” the paper thundered. “Without time limits, they’re a far less accurate measure.” Eva S. Moskowitz, founder of the Success Academy charter schools had a similar reaction. “I don’t even know how you administer a test like that,” she told the New York Times

I’ll confess that my initial reaction was not very different. Intuitively, testing conditions would seem to have a direct impact on validity. If you test Usain Bolt and me on our ability to run one hundred meters, I might finish faster if I’m on flat ground and the world record holder is forced to run up a very steep incline. But that doesn’t make me Usain Bolt’s equal. By abolishing time limits, it seemed New York was seeking to game the results, giving every student a “special education accommodation” with extended time for testing. 

But after reading the research and talking to leading psychometricians, I’ve concluded that both...

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