Standards, Testing & Accountability

Last week, the Department of Education released the 2015 Nation’s Report Card for twelfth graders. As with the fourth- and eighth-grade scores provided last fall, there was little to celebrate. In the core subjects of math and reading, average scores held firm at the same unimpressive level they’ve been at since 2009. The scores of low-performers—whether defined as the proportion of students “below Basic” or those in the bottom decile—actually declined for the first time in at least a decade.

There was one glimmer of good news: High-end reading scores (whether defined as the top decile or the percentage of students at NAEP’s “Advanced” level) rose by a statistically significant margin—the first time that’s happened since 1998. Indeed, this qualified as only the second such upward bump ever for high-end twelfth graders. (Since 1990, there has never been a statistically significant jump at the high end in math or science for high school seniors.)

Moreover, this year’s high-end reading gains occurred despite all other scores (average and low-end reading and math, as well as high-end math) being down or flat across all core subjects in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. That fact that is itself rather unusual. High-end fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores,...

Next week, in a series daily blog posts, Jay Greene and I will explore areas of agreement and disagreement around the issue of school choice and school quality. In particular, we will address the question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with test results?

The school choice tent is much bigger than it used to be. Politicians and policy wonks across the ideological spectrum have embraced the principle that parents should get to choose their children’s schools and local districts should not have a monopoly on school supply.

But within this big tent there are big arguments about the best way to promote school quality. Some want all schools to take the same tough tests, and for low-performing schools (those that fail to show individual student growth over time) to be shut down (or, in a voucher system, to be kicked out of the program). Others want to let the market work to promote quality and resist policies that amount to second-guessing parents.

Look for the first post, from Jay, on Monday....

A new, somewhat unsettling NBER working paper by Thomas Dee and colleagues examines the prevalence and implications of teachers tampering with student test scores on New York State Regents exams.

The analysts focus on exams taken between the 2003–04 and 2009–10 school years in New York City, which can be reliably linked to students. To qualify for a “local” diploma, the lowest degree available in New York, students entering high school before fall 2005 had to score at least a 55 on all five core Regents exams (English, Math, Science, U.S. History/Government, and Global History/Geography). In fall 2008, local diplomas were eliminated, and students were required to receive at least a 65 score on all five tests.

Up until 2012–13, Regents exams were graded by teachers from students’ own schools, and a policy was in place that required exams with scores just below the cutoff to be re-scored by the schools. The analysts document clear spikes around the cutoffs in an otherwise smooth test score distribution. In other words the scores immediately below the cutoffs appear less frequently than expected from a “well-behaved empirical distribution,” and the scores at or just above the cutoffs appear more frequently than expected, suggesting that scores just below...

Matt Gandal

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, our country is entering a new chapter in education reform. After fifteen years of work by states and school districts to raise standards, disaggregate data, and close gaps, the federal government is taking the foot off the gas and leaving more decisions to the states and local school officials, including those about measures, metrics, incentives, and interventions.

For those of us who have been working with states for many years toward the goal of college and career readiness for all students, this is a period of great excitement—and, admittedly, some trepidation. Excitement because there's a real opportunity for states to build on the good work that has already been accomplished, make midcourse corrections, and spark needed innovation. Trepidation because if state leaders and advocates aren't careful, more than a decade of important work to establish more meaningful, rigorous expectations for our schoolchildren could be undone.

Although the No Child Left Behind Act outlived its relevance, let's not overlook the significant progress that states made during its time frame. As recently as the early 1990s, very few states even had standards. Expectations for students varied district by district and school by school,...

A new study from RAND uses information from teacher polling to examine state implementation of the Common Core State Standards. The data are drawn from two nationally representative surveys of U.S. educators (both K–12 math and ELA teachers) administered in summer and fall 2015. Both had response rates ranging from 57 to 62 percent, with roughly 1,100–1,700 participants responding to each. The questionnaires focus on teachers’ perceptions and practices as they relate to key instructional approaches reflected primarily in the standards. My seven critical takeaways are these:

1) When asked if they ever used particular materials, the majority of math teachers generally report developing materials themselves (97 percent of elementary teachers). Over forty percent of all surveyed elementary teachers claimed that they used the popular and universally available Engage NY.

2) Ninety-eight percent of elementary teachers report using leveled readers, and  those who do so weekly or daily describe various applications for them. For instance, high percentages (68 percent) say they use the readers to support struggling students in place of the grade-level text other students are reading. (Yet Common Core supports the teaching of grade-appropriate texts with the idea that teacher support and explanation, not text difficulty, is...

The royal edition

On this week's podcast, Alyssa Schwenk and Robert Pondiscio discuss the Vergara defeat, Education Secretary John King's call for a "well-rounded" American education, and Hillary Clinton's stance on standardized testing. In the Research Minute, Amber Northern explains recent teacher implementation efforts of new K-12 standards for mathematics and English language arts.

Amber's Research Minute

V. Darleen Opfer, Julia H. Kaufman, and Lindsey E. Thomspon, "Implementation of K-12 State Standards for Mathematics and English Language Arts and Literacy," RAND (April 2016).

Ah, spring. The much-anticipated return of baseball, blooming flowers, chirping birds, and…standardized tests.

Annual testing is now well underway in schools across the nation, and several states have already experienced major technological complications, frustrating educators and students alike and fueling increasingly vocal testing opponents.  

Students taking the Alaska Measures of Progress (AMP) test, developed by the University of Kansas’s Achievement & Assessment Institute, encountered widespread Internet access issues this spring. Even after initial connectivity failures across Alaska were addressed, the state’s testing platform continued crashing, and responses submitted by many students were simply lost. In a largely rural state with limited bandwidth to begin with, the Alaska Department of Education opted to scrap computer-based testing entirely this year rather than continue to frustrate teachers and students statewide with technical disruptions.

Then, in a snafu described as “simply unacceptable” by Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, many students taking the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) ran into complications and were unable to complete their online tests last month. Responses for an additional fourteen-thousand-plus tests were also inexplicably lost due to computer hiccups. In light of these troubles, the Texas Education Agency is letting districts decide whether to...

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series about the performance of Ohio’s urban high schoolers. The first post examined graduation rates and ACT scores.

Recognizing that traditional four-year graduation rates send overly encouraging signals about whether students are ready for post-secondary education, Ohio rolled out six “Prepared for Success” measures in 2014 to create a more complete picture of high school success. In this post, I look at two of these metrics, Advanced Placement (participation rates and scores) and dual enrollment (percentage of students earning three or more college credits while in high school).[1] Three findings emerge.

First, while every Ohio Big 8 district fell well below the state averages for graduation rates and ACT scores, the same cannot be said for AP and dual enrollment. A few hold their own on AP participation and scores, and several outperform the state on dual enrollment. This likely reflects urban districts’ earnest attempts to close opportunity gaps for students, as well as their economies of scale and proximity to institutions of higher education, but it may also be caused by low state averages generally. Second, the data itself is worrisome:...

The Democratic primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has been a fractious one, dividing party loyalists on issues like health care, foreign intervention, financial reform, and corporate influence on politics. Curiously, education hasn’t surfaced as a subject of dispute—until this week, when a few education voices on the Left mistakenly harangued Clinton for going soft on her commitment to testing. Though well-intentioned, these commentators need to cool their jets and take a closer look at her record.

It’s appropriate that this kerfuffle would start now that both candidates have alighted in New York, a bulwark of union strength and bare-fanged hostility to Common Core (some 20 percent of eligible students were opted out of last year’s round of standardized testing). The crux of it is this: Some left-leaning reformers have seized on a few ill-advised comments by Bill Clinton as proof that his wife is selling out school accountability. Liberal tribune Jonathan Chait (or at least his headline writers) accused her of “abandoning education reform”; Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, wrote that the former president’s remarks would redound “to the detriment of our students, particularly poor and minority children, children of recent immigrants, and students with...

On Tuesday, April 12, 2016, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a full committee hearing titled “ESSA Implementation in States and School Districts: Perspectives from the U.S. Secretary of Education,” the first of a series of oversight hearings on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Chairman Lamar Alexander delivered an opening statement to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. and asked Secretary King two rounds of questions. What follows is the transcript of these talks.

Of particular interest to those of us at Fordham (besides the very important back-and-forth about the appropriate federal role in education and the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches) is the issue of flexibility around eighth-grade math assessments for advanced students. That is addressed toward the end of the transcript.

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Senator Alexander Opening Statement

Mr. Secretary, as you know, I urged the president to nominate an education secretary because I thought it was important to have a confirmed secretary accountable to the United States Senate when the department was implementing the new law fixing No Child Left Behind.

You have sworn to discharge your duties faithfully. That is your oath of office, and...

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