Standards, Testing & Accountability

Previously, I posted about the perils of applying standards-driven instruction to reading classrooms. The point was that reading standards typically don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers; they merely list the skills and habits exhibited by already good readers. Therefore, using standards to plan lessons results in ineffective reading instruction—those skills and habits can’t really be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract.

The truth is that while the problems are most acute in reading, standards for any subject are most effective when used not to drive lesson planning on any given day, but rather the selection of a clear, teacher-friendly, coherently developed curriculum. That’s because even the best standards don’t help teachers figure out how to ensure that all students master the requisite content and skills. They describe the destination, but they don’t provide a roadmap. Curriculum is the missing link.

One might then ask why we are even talking about standards. Rather than debating the Common Core State Standards why not debate a “Common Curriculum”? In fact, that is how it works in many countries. Even Finland—the country that most reform critics want us to emulate—began their now-famous transition to international education superpower by, first and foremost, writing and adopting a national curriculum.

In other nations, state-developed curricula go further than American standards. Here, states list content and skills, but stop short of defining pedagogy or prescribing curriculum. Abroad, governments prescribe a particular course...

The one about Christmas cookies

John King’s tenure in New York, more ESEA reauthorization efforts, and the big stories of 2014.
 
Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Soohyung Lee, Lesley J. Turner, Seokjin Woo, and Kyunghee Kim, “All or Nothing? The Impact of School and Classroom Gender Composition on Effort and Academic Achievement,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 20722 (December 2014). 

Senator Lamar Alexander, Representative John Kline, and their respective staffs have successfully freaked out sizable portions of the education-reform crowd—especially those who spend our days inside the Beltway bubble—by threatening to eliminate No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirement. I’m hoping that this is just a bluff or feint—a way to strengthen their negotiating position—because the idea is so insane.  Do Republicans really want to scrap the transparency that comes from measuring student (and school and district) progress from year to year and go back to the Stone Age of judging schools based on a snapshot in time? Or worse, based on inputs, promises, and claims? Are they seriously proposing to eliminate the data that are powering great studies and new findings every day on topics from vouchers to charters to teacher effectiveness and more?

I suspect they’ll come to their senses. But I do appreciate the impulse—both the reaction to a dozen years of Washington micromanagement (taken to new heights by Arne Duncan’s conditional waivers) and the very real concern about over-testing in the classroom. If the GOP wants actually to fix that problem, however, rather than just rail about it, here’s an idea: Kill the federal mandate around teacher evaluations and much of the over-testing will go away.

That’s because much of the huge growth in testing in recent years hasn’t come from No Child Left...

The one where Mike and Robert agree on everything

The importance of vocabulary, ESEA reauthorization efforts, school discipline, and how school environment affects teacher effectiveness.

Amber's Research Minute

Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay, “Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 36, No. 4 (December 2014).

Editor’s Note: On Thursday, November 13, Chad Aldis testified before the Ohio House Education Committee on the substitute bill for House Bill 228. His comments focused on a small but substantial change that would limit the length of a state assessment, even if administered in several parts at multiple times during the school year, to four hours. A portion of his testimony is below.

I would like to commend the legislature on its decision to examine the issue of over-testing. In recent months, concerns over the amount of classroom time allocated to standardized testing have risen with a fervor and urgency that is understandable. Testing impacts thousands of students, parents, and educators across our state. As a parent of children in a traditional public school, I understand the concerns surrounding testing. I am equally concerned though that in our rush to find a solution we could potentially swing the pendulum too far the other way.

I oppose placing a testing time limit in statute for three reasons.

First, the provision limiting testing hours on the state assessment is a quick fix that may not solve the issue of over-testing. Under HB 487, enacted in June, the state superintendent is required to study the state’s assessments and report back to you by January 15. This report should give you valuable information that can be utilized in making decisions about testing. I urge you to be patient and wait for...

The information yielded by standardized tests—and the analyses based on test results, like value-added—should form the basis for tough decisions regarding which schools (charter and district) or entire school systems require intervention. Parents need information about school quality, and taxpayers ought to know whether their resources are being put to good use. But at the same time, parents and policymakers alike have valid concerns about “overtesting” students, and how high-stakes tests change how schools behave.

Over the past decade, Ohio has tested social studies and science unevenly, and will continue to do so under the new assessment program set to begin in spring 2015. Under the old system, the state administered science tests in just grades 5 and 8, while math and English language arts (ELA) were assessed in all grades 3–8. Social studies was tested for just three years (2006–07 to 2008–09) in grades 5 and 8, but it was “suspended” effective fall 2009. The new state testing program continues science assessments in grades 5 and 8 and resurrects social studies testing in grades 4 and 6.

Should Ohio test in science and social studies, in addition to ELA and math assessments? And if so, how often? With that in mind, let’s look at the case to test and not to test in social studies and science—and then consider some policy options. 

The case against testing in social studies and science

The case against social studies and science rests on this premise: The incremental...

All Hallows Edition

The testing pushback, a college boost for poor kids, adolescent readers, and school-supporting nonprofits.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Rise of School-Supporting Nonprofits," by Ashlyn Aiko Nelson and Beth Gazley, Association for Education Finance and Policy (Feburary 2014).

Jonathan Schleifer

Countries with high school exit exams appear to have higher levels of student achievement, as indicated by PISA and some positive evidence from other countries that have used graduation exams. But have they worked in the United States? A recent Education Next forum failed to ask this essential question.

When fourteen public school teachers came together as part of Educators 4 Excellence-New York Teacher Policy Team on how to improve the use of testing in schools, they were taken aback by the depth of research showing the harmful effects of exit exams, which twenty-six states have adopted in one form or another.

There are two relevant research questions: Do exit exams have beneficial effects on students in terms of achievement or labor-market outcomes? And do exit exams have negative consequences, particularly on historically disadvantaged populations of students? The answers are no and yes, respectively. Here’s a representative, though not comprehensive, review:

Studies that find no benefit

  • In 2008, researchers examined a nationally representative sample of students and found no impact on achievement of high school graduation exams for any subpopulation of students, including low achievers.
  • A 2010 study of California’s exit exams used a regression discontinuity analysis to examine students who had just narrowly failed a tenth-grade exam. The results were disappointing: “The analyses show no evidence of any significant or sizeable effect of failing the exam on high school course-taking, achievement, persistence, or graduation for students with test scores near the exit exam
  • ...

All the world's a stage - October 22, 2014

The benefits of live theater, how and whether to discipline, detrimental reading tests, and relative school costs.

Amber's Research Minute

The Relative Costs of New York City’s New Small Public High Schools of Choice,” by Robert Bifulco and Rebecca Unterman,  MRDC (October 2014).

Ohio is moving to new standardized tests, the PARCC assessments, which are set to commence in spring 2015. These new and vastly different tests pose big challenges. For one, unlike the paper-and-pencil exams of the past, the PARCC is designed for online administration, leading to obvious questions about schools’ technical readiness to administer the exams.[1] In addition, as Cleveland’s Plain Dealer reported recently, PARCC test results may be released later than usual in 2015—likely delaying the release of school report cards. At the same time, no one knows exactly where PARCC will set its cut-scores for “proficiency” and other achievement levels.[2] Finally, expect political blowback, too, when lower test scores are reported under PARCC, perhaps even stronger than the ongoing skirmishes around Ohio’s new learning standards.

Despite these complications, Ohioans should give PARCC a chance. Ohio needs a higher-quality state assessment to replace its mostly rinky-dink tests of yesteryear. Take a look at PARCC’s test-item prototypes; they ask students to demonstrate solid analytical skills based on what they know in math and English language arts. The upshot: PARCC’s more-sophisticated approach to assessment could put an end to the “test-prep” instruction that has infiltrated too many American classrooms. As Laura Slover, CEO of PARCC, has argued:

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...

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