Standards, Testing & Accountability

I’d like to see Bobby Jindal use a teleprompter the next time he attacks Common Core. I’d like to be reassured he knows how to read.

Jindal continued his full-throated and disingenuous attack on Common Core for the benefit of the base at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week. “The federal government has no right imposing curriculum,” he noted, “when these decisions have always been made by local parents, by teachers, by local leaders.” Needless to say (unless you’re saying it to the governor of Louisiana), Common Core comes nowhere near imposing curriculum; this the cynical Jindal surely knows—or at least would know if he actually took the time to read the standards. 

Jindal was the worst offender, but not the only one. At CPAC, Marco Rubio invoked the prospect under Common Core of “a national school board that imposes a national curriculum on the whole country.” What curriculum, Senator? 

Even National Review, no bastion of squishy liberalism, cringed at a CPAC panel on the standards, describing it as “a badly missed opportunity to educate conservatives about how Common Core has created tension between small-government principles and the priorities of one of the most successful right-of-center movements of the past couple decades, education reform.” As NRO’s Patrick Brennan noted,

The moderator focused one of her questions on the idea that one of the biggest problems with Common Core has been its “content,” listing sex education, evolution, and U.S. history as flashpoints. This is straight-up misinformation—Common Core...

By Jonathan Plucker

Gadfly editorial by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern

While the merit and politics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been much debated and discussed, one topic has been virtually ignored: What do the standards portend for America’s high-ability students? This brief addresses that question and provides guidance for CCSS-implementing districts and schools as they seek to help these youngsters to reach their learning potential. Four key points emerge.

1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services.
2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen those that help them.
3. Schools should work hard to make differentiation "real."
4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students.

We at Fordham are big fans of Jason Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist who just joined the team at the Manhattan Institute. So we were doubly disappointed to see him parrot the Russ Whitehurst/Tom Loveless argument that “standards don’t matter.”

Of course they don’t—in isolation. On their own, content standards are just words on paper (or, as Rick Hess likes to say, akin to restaurants’ mission statements). We’ve acknowledged as much for years.

The question is whether they can spark instructional change. That’s no sure thing; as we’ve argued forever, it takes a ton of hard work at the state and local levels. First, it requires developing tests that assess the full range of the standards, including the challenging ones; this is something that arguably no state save for Massachusetts actually did in the pre-Common Core era. Second, it means investing in high-quality curricular materials and allowing time for teachers to master them. (No, the curricular materials need not be—and should not be—“national.” But surely we can do better than the schlock that textbook companies have been peddling for years.)

This is where Riley’s argument falls apart. He quotes Whitehurst saying that teachers are what matter most—and it’s true that researchers have long found big differences in teacher effectiveness both within schools and across schools. But there’s no law of physics stating that such huge differences are inevitable. It’s arguably America’s uneven, amateurish approach to curriculum...

The SNL edition

Common Core in the suburbs, the highest high school graduation rate ever, our international education gap, and a comparison of the MCAS and PARCC assessments.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: “Educating Students for Success: A Comparison of the MCAS and PARCC Assessments as Indicators of College- and Career-Readiness,” Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (February 2015).

Last week, writer Laura McKenna took to the Atlantic to try to understand why some suburban moms (yes, many of them white) have turned against the Common Core. She settles on misinformation as a driving force, which is certainly a factor. For example, if these parents understood that their own local schools still have complete control over curriculum and textbooks, perhaps they wouldn’t be so frustrated with standards set so far away.

But this is still an unsatisfactory answer. My own sense from watching this debate play out is that many of the “white suburban moms” who oppose Common Core also share a romantic, progressive view of education that is at odds with traditional schooling in general. We will never convince them of Common Core’s value, nor should we expect to. Instead, we should allow them to opt their kids out of traditional public schools and into schools (including charters) that are proudly progressive.

This conclusion is informed by a groundbreaking study we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published in 2013, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs. Its major (and surprising) finding was that most parents actually want pretty much the same things from their schools: a solid core curriculum in reading and math, an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and the development in students of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. That list matches up pretty darn well with the Common...

A report last month from a pair of advocacy organizations, the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years, argued that “there is a widespread belief that teaching children to read early will help them be better readers in the long-run,” but that there is “no scientific evidence that this is so.” The Washington Post and its Common Core-averse education blogger, Valerie Strauss, have been particularly aggressive in highlighting this report and running pieces from both parents and teachers arguing that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful.”

The report, titled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose sounds an alarm over a perceived shift “from play-based, experiential approaches to more academic approaches” in early-childhood classrooms starting in the 1980s. “Under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS),” the authors claim, “the snowball has escalated into an avalanche which threatens to destroy appropriate and effective approaches to early education.”

The authors make much of the fact that no one involved with writing the standards was a K–3 teacher or early-childhood professional. The more important issue, however, isn’t who wrote it, but whether Common Core is beyond the abilities of five-year-olds or the expectations we should have for them. The short answer, I think, is “no.” But let’s look at some of the report’s specific complaints.

Expecting kindergarteners to read is “developmentally inappropriate.”

The much-used phrase “developmentally appropriate” (or inappropriate)...

Student learning gains ought to be a component of teacher evaluations. Measures such as value added are a useful and important complement to classroom observations. But not all models are created equal, as illustrated by a new lawsuit in Tennessee that reveals a rather preposterous policy.

Last week, the Volunteer State’s largest teacher union sued the state in federal court over a law that ties student test scores to evaluations of educators who teach such non-core subjects as art, French, and gym. Teachers in Tennessee receive annual scores between one and five, with five being best. Those scores determine all manner of high-stakes administrative decisions affecting teachers, including bonuses, termination, and tenure. Approximately half of the metric is based on classroom observations, the rest on student test scores. For a teacher in a core subject such as math, and in a grade in which students are tested, this model makes sense. The bulk of the test-based portion of her rating is based on how well her students do on the math portions of the state’s standardized tests. That’s rational. A smaller portion, 15 percent, is based on “school-wide” performance—how well all the schools’ students do in all subjects tested. That also makes at least some sense as a strategy for encouraging teacher collaboration.

Yet for non-core instructors—the focus of the lawsuit—the law becomes rather absurd. Aside from a few questionable alternative assessments that aren’t widely used in Tennessee, no standardized assessment data exist for the subjects and pupils...

Recent days have brought several thoughtful commentaries on results-based accountability in K-12 education, why it’s important, what it’s accomplished and why it needs to continue.

Such attention is exceptionally timely, as the negotiations presently underway between Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray in pursuit of a bipartisan formula for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind will inevitably devote much attention to the issues surrounding school (and teacher) accountability.

Like Mike Petrilli, I’m convinced that this can no longer be managed from Washington. Like Mike, I’m also convinced that accountability for results in K–12 education must continue. Losing it would carry us back to the pre-Coleman era when schools were judged not by their results but by their inputs, promises, and services, and teachers were evaluated by brief classroom visits from supervisors who arrived with no data, no rubrics—and no ability to do anything about problematic instructors. (Alas, that last shortage remains the norm, as does the practice of finding just about every teacher satisfactory, if not outstanding.)

The only thing that really matters about a school (or teacher)—beyond such basics as children’s safety—is whether kids are learning there. If they’re not, something must be done to change the situation.

But that’s where the soup thickens. What, exactly, to do? The drafters of NCLB thought they knew, and accordingly imposed a cascade of sanctions, plans, and interventions intended to “turn around” failing schools (and districts), as well as some choice-based actions intended to give kids alternatives to such schools. They...

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has produced a three-minute video looking at the purpose of assessments. With the ongoing debate about testing (even in this issue of Gadfly), it’s easy to forget why it’s important.

 

 

Like Moses in the wilderness, state policymakers have to cope with incessant grumbling—in their case over standardized testing. Last year, Ohio legislators compromised on testing and accountability, including delaying the implementation of Ohio’s new school report cards, waiving the consequences for poor performance in the 2014–15 school year, ditching the Algebra II end-of-course exam, and tweaking the teacher evaluation system by allowing schools to reduce the weight of the test-based accountability measure.

As the new General Assembly gears up in 2015, lawmakers will face even greater pressure to water down testing and accountability. Already, two high-priority bills have been introduced with provisions that, if passed, would further weaken Ohio’s new testing and accountability framework. The first provision is a test-time cap; the second is a delay on the stakes associated with Ohio’s new high school tests. Both provisions, while politically popular and seemingly insignificant, are flawed and should be rejected.

Test-time caps

Senate Bill 3 is designed to identify areas ripe for deregulation in education—a needed and overdue endeavor. Some of the recommendations in the bill are sound, like eliminating the needless third-grade test given in the fall. But one recommendation is a hard cap on testing time: No more than 2 percent of a student’s school year can be dedicated to state and district standardized tests, and less than 1 percent can be used to prepare for them (i.e., time taken on “practice” or “diagnostic” tests). If passed, the cap would apply starting in...

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