Standards, Testing, & Accountability

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002 was the apotheosis of the standards-assessments-accountability movement, which had been building for about two decades.

Some loved it, believing this latest reauthorization of the LBJ-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) finally put the spotlight on high-need kids and our nation’s ongoing inability to provide them with a great education. Advocates point to the steady closing of the achievement gap during the law’s period of influence as evidence that it was producing the results desired.

But many others viewed NCLB as the ultimate distortion of K–12 accountability. It emanated from Washington, unrealistically aspired to 100 percent proficiency, labeled too many schools “in need of improvement,” and—sin of all sins—was obsessed with assessments.

If NCLB represented the farthest point of the testing pendulum’s swing to the right, many forces beyond gravity alone are now pulling it leftward.

Congress’s inability to reauthorize the law (now about seven years late) is a clear indication that many members are uncomfortable with the law’s contours.

The “opt-out” movement, whereby parents decide to free their students from the administration of ESEA-related tests, shows that, at least to some degree, families have misgivings about assessments.

And in a growing number of states—most recently in Tennessee—legislators are moving to end their relationships with the two Common Core–aligned assessment consortia.

If the success of tactics and short-term wins are the measuring stick, the anti-testing crowd has reason to celebrate. They appear to be ascendant....

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Last week, I attended a forum at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, hosted by our friends at KidsOhio.org, which showcased efforts in the city of Columbus to meet the challenge of Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee. The district’s work thus far is impressive: multiple citywide family literacy events held over the last four months, recruitment of “literacy-buddy” volunteers for in-school service, extensive training for reading interventionists, and even mustering the support of school-bus drivers to encourage reading every day. Is all of this effort going to make every third grader pass the reading test before the start of fourth grade? No. Is it going to improve upon the 48 percent passing rate achieved in the district last fall? Yes—and when it does, one long-standing barrier to achievement in my hometown schools will be overcome for hundreds of children.

And as for the mighty Columbus Metropolitan Library, voted more than once the number-one library system of its size in the country? Well, they’re trying really hard. Panelist Alison Circle noted several times that she and her staff are “out of their comfort zone” in an effort of this type. Nevertheless, they should be applauded for supplying books, recruiting volunteers, and making sure that schools and families know their doors are open to all in support of this “all-hands-on-deck moment” in our community.

It is fitting that attendees seemed most impressed with the stories told—of Columbus superintendent Dan Good’s mother joining him at a family literacy event and...

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The House Education Committee tucked two provisions into the Mid-Biennium Review bill that would alter the state’s calculation of student progress. They both relate to the value-added model (VAM), the state’s method for computing a school or district’s impact on student-learning progress over time.

Value added is a statistical model that uses student-level data, collected over time, to isolate the contribution of a school on learning. This calculation is a noble and necessary undertaking, given what research has shown, time and again, about the significant influence of out-of-school factors on students’ educational success (e.g., parents, tutoring, private art and music lessons, faith-based education, etc.).

If the objective is to gain a clearer view of the true effectiveness of a school—its educators and their approach to curriculum, behavior, scheduling, and so forth—we want to minimize the influence of the out-of-school factors. Increasing clarity to school performance applies both to high-wealth schools, which can skate by on the backs of upper-middle-class parents, and to low-wealth schools, which can be handicapped in an accountability system based on raw proficiency measures.

I believe—and yes, to a certain extent, based on faith—that the state is moving in the right direction with its approach to value added.[1] But in my view, the House is making two missteps in its proposed changes to VAM. The following describe the provisions and why the state legislature should remove them as the bill heads to the Senate.

Provision 1: Changes value added from...

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Elsewhere in this issue, I write at length about my take on last week’s event talking about Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee and what it means to students in Columbus. As you read, the mantra was “all hands on deck,” even while hosts and presenters and audience members alike betrayed a worrying language of “reading is hard” and “tests are icky” that could easily undo a ton of great work.

And it didn’t stop at the door of the event.

Case in point: the Columbus Dispatch’s coverage of this event, which comprised two subtly different stories by the same journalist.

So maybe this is just perception, or maybe I’m being too sensitive, but the messaging concerns me. This is an important effort that must succeed and must continue to succeed for year upon year....

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I try to avoid reading Paul Krugman’s columns because they almost always make me angry, and anger is not something I particularly enjoy. Yet I couldn’t help myself this morning, and the experience proved my point. In discussing the decision of many red states to decline Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare, he writes that “it appears to be motivated by pure spite.” He goes on to quote one of the “architects” of the law: “The Medicaid-rejection states ‘are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.’”

Then read Charles Krauthammer’s column about the summary execution of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for holding a position on gay marriage, six years ago, that a majority of Californians also held, as did a certain candidate for president (ahem, Barack Obama). “What’s at play,” writes Krauthammer, “is sheer ideological prejudice—and the enforcement of the new totalitarian norm that declares, unilaterally, certain issues to be closed.” And it’s not just about gay marriage; there is similar close-mindedness about global warming and contraception, Krauthammer writes.

What’s fascinating is that, not so long ago, it was conservatives who were famous for their “moral clarity” while liberals prided themselves in their “nuance.” But where’s the nuance in Paul Krugman’s views? Isn’t it possible that the states rejected Medicaid because they knew that a few years from now they’d be on the hook for picking up the coverage...

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Mike and Michelle discuss the “opt-out outrage,” good news from Kansas, and hope for the quagmire that is the United States Congress. Amber has the goods on exactly how generous public pension plans are. Amber's Research Minute Not So Modest: Pension Benefits for Full-Career State Government...

The opt-out-of-state-testing movement has notched more wins lately. “Thousands,” we read, are refusing to take the tests in New York alone. And tons more interest and attention are being devoted to this topic in states and communities far and wide.

Tough questions urgently arise: Is it legal to opt your child out of state tests? Should it be legal? And if it’s not—and ought not be—legal, is it a legitimate act of civil disobedience to refuse to obey such a law?

The recent surge of activity has more than one source. Partly it’s a response to broad concerns about too much testing and disquiet over curricular narrowing and test-prep overkill. Partly it’s a reaction against the Common Core standards, which have lately become controversial. And partly it’s just old-fashioned Rousseauian romanticism about the ends of education and the proper metrics by which to determine whether the right ends are being attained.

Yes, it’s understandable. But is it acceptable?

The legal status of testing opt-out is a bit murky. “Required by state law but not consistently enforced” seems to be the rule in most places. Colorado statutes, for instance, declare that “Every student enrolled in a public school is required to take the assessments in the grade level in which the student is enrolled.” New York requires participation in the tests but also has an administrative procedure in place for those who...

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The mainstream media has been hyping bills lately (one passed in Indiana and one pending in Oklahoma) that would demand a review of the Common Core State Standards. The typical story features a headline declaring Common Core “repealed” in Indiana, while the rest of the article details why that’s not necessarily the case. In short, these laws do not prevent the state from adopting the Common Core or something substantially similar. But an amendment slipped into the state budget last night by the Kansas Senate would repeal the Common Core...and replace it with nothing.

First, some background. The Kansas Supreme Court recently ruled that the states funding formula is flawed and disproportionately sends funds to property-rich areas of the state at the expense of the property-poor ones. To remedy that situation, and with its legislative session quickly coming to a close, the legislature is scrambling to find about $129 million to put into aid for schools.

During this process, however, Senator Forrest Knox from Altoona introduced a provision that would prevent the state and local school districts from expending any state funds, “to implement the common core standards or any portion of such standards, including any assessments affiliated with common core standards unless the legislature expressly consents to the use of the common core standards.” The amendment passed 27–12.

Unlike bills in other states that call for review and maybe some tweaks to the standards, this provision is clear: Common Core would be no more in Kansas (at least until the legislature assented). The key provision...

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While I won't say I'm glad that Indiana (or any other state) is reversing its earlier embrace and spitting in the eye of the Common Core, it grieves me not at all that they now seem to be exiting.

Well, it grieves me that they may be consigning Hoosier schools and teachers and kids to a worse fate—the state's draft alternative standards aren't just educationally inferior to the Common Core, they're also worse than Indiana's own previous K–12 academic expectations—but it doesn’t upset me one bit that legislators are now pulling this plug. For it's been abundantly clear for months that their heart wasn't in the Common Core standards, which means they would have done a lame job of implementing and assessing performance in relation to them. (Be mindful that Indiana did a lame job of putting its own old standards into practice, which is at least part of why the state's academic results have been thoroughly mediocre.)

I've argued for years now that the forty-five-state number (original sign-ups for Common Core) was inflated, unrealistic, and implausible and that many of those states were never—are never—going to lift their hands to operationalize the standards. (One finger, maybe, but taking any set of new standards seriously means heavy, heavy lifting from many, many buckets. You can't do that with one finger.)

Far better for a smaller number of states that are serious about this implementation, assessment, and accountability challenge to stick with the...

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Mike and Dara explain the de Blasio–Cuomo deal, the difficulties of studying high flyers, and what it takes to be cool in school. Amber thinks the new PISA data on creative problem solving are just a touch too creative. Amber's Research Minute PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving by OECD, (...

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