Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Laura McGiffert Slover

More than one million students. Sixteen thousand schools. Nearly 10,000 test items. This spring is a critical milestone, as PARCC states make history by participating in field tests. More than the numbers, however, the successful field tests mark a huge shift in how we do testing in this country.

PARCC states are creating tests worth taking, made up of texts worth reading and problems worth solving. They are designed to give teachers information and tools they can use to customize teaching and learning for each student, and give students test questions and tasks that are meaningful –the kind that great teachers routinely ask students. As a former teacher, I know that good testing, the kind that measures students’ ability to apply concepts, isn’t a loss of instructional time – it’s an opportunity to learn. That’s what we are aiming for with PARCC – learning experiences, not just memorizing facts and filling in bubbles.

The PARCC assessments mark the end of “test prep.” Good instruction will be the only way to truly prepare students for the assessments. Memorization, drill and test-taking strategies will no longer siphon time from instruction. As students work through well-constructed problems, they are asked to draw upon what they’ve learned and apply it to solve problems. Results will help teachers assist kids who are struggling and help identify those who are well on their way toward demonstrating the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the next grades and in whichever pathways they choose after high school....

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Dara and Brickman enthuse about early-talent identification programs, rue Indiana’s subpar state standards, and wonder how much is too much to pay superintendents. Amber finds little to no connection between a popular pre-K quality measure and pupil outcomes. Amber's Research Minute “ Do Standard...

South Carolina has taken today’s testing drama to new heights. A few years back, the governor, chief, and state board chair all agreed to have the Palmetto State become a governing board member of the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) testing consortia. But as other states withdrew and new testing options emerged, the state legislature no longer saw participation in a consortium as necessary. So several bills have been filed to force an SBAC departure. The state chief, hoping to find accord with the legislature, recommended that the state board vote to willingly withdraw. The board voted against. Now the state chief has discovered the he has the power to withdraw without the state board’s blessing. Read this letter from the chief to the board. Remarkable stuff.

Indiana is now the latest state to release disappointing results from a new teacher-evaluation system. Though many of us hoped the Widget Effect would disappear, it’s becoming clear that changing statutes and regulations are only a small part of the equation.  

In Tennessee, it’s been tough reform sledding of late. The state’s cutting-edge policy on tying certification to value-added scores is no more. Now it looks like the state may back out of PARCC and issue an RFP for future tests. On the upside, new charter-school legislation is making its way to the governor’s desk; it would enable the state board of education to authorize charter schools rejected by local school districts. Of course,...

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As opposition to the Common Core State Standards has gained momentum in parts of the land, it’s important to ask what happens if a state changes its mind and renounces those standards—which, as we’ve long said, states have every right to do. But then what? Does the state revive its old academic standards, be they good, bad, or average? Does it rewrap the Common Core and affix its own label thereon? (That’s happened already in several places, including some states where the Common Core wasn’t particularly controversial but state pride and sense of ownership are intense.) Does it keep the substance of the Core but add some content of its own—as Common Core authors always expected? (This has occurred, inter alia, in MassachusettsFlorida, and California.) Does it come up with something altogether new and better? Or does it come up with something new and worse?

Last month, when Governor Mike Pence signed a bill officially repealing his state’s 2010 adoption of the CCSS, Indiana became the first Common Core state to formally repudiate the standards. Unfortunately, it appears that, in its haste to reject and replace the CCSS, Indiana seems poised to adopt a set of Potemkin Standards—expectations built with a façade that impresses but with very little enduring substance.

Repealing the Common Core left the state’s teachers and school districts with no curricular or instructional guidance, and it left the state Department of Education little time to finalize a new set of K–12 English and math standards or to develop a workable implementation...

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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...

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