Standards, Testing & Accountability

Whether the United States should embrace national standards and tests for its schools is perhaps today's hottest education issue. For guidance in addressing it, the newest Fordham report looks beyond our borders. How have other countries navigated these turbid waters? What do their systems look like? How did they get there? What can we learn from them? Expert analysts examined national standards and testing in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore and South Korea. This report presents their key takeaways.

Here in Ohio, the annual report card release from the Ohio Department of Education is like Christmas. We wait a long time for this morning, anticipating what kind of goodies there will be to unwrap in all of the data (and there is a lot of it).In good news, students in Ohio's "Big 8" districts (large urban cities) were just as likely to attend a school rated "A" or "B" by the state in 2008-09 as they were the year before (for the last two years, 20 percent of urban students- both charter and district - attended a school ranked Effective or Excellent). But, as Terry points out in our Special Analysis of Local Report Cards (PDF), there are still over 125,000 children in Big 8 cities who attend a school rated by the state as failing, or on the verge of it.

The good news is that according to Ohio's value-added metric, which measures the amount of growth achieved by schools and districts (in addition to absolute proficiency rates), roughly half of all schools in the Big 8 cities that serve grades four through eight exceeded expected growth in 2008-09.

As Terry is quoted on Catalyst OHIO:

"This data represents both the worst of news and the best of news. Overall, only half of the students in big urban districts are proficient in reading and math. But the good news is that in these schools, whether charter or district, students seem to be...

Our new report, International Lessons about National Standards, authored by William Schmidt, Richard Houang, and Sharif Shakrani of Michigan State University, is out today. Of course, you'll want to read it from cover to cover...I say that because there are lots of interesting nuggets not only in the body of the report, but in the appendices, too. Appendix A, for instance, includes short profiles of each country's educational system. Here are three tidbits from there to whet your appetite for further reading:

  • Did you know that South Korea just recently decided to test a critical mass of its students and publish their exam results? The decision isn't being met with open arms...Here's an excerpt from the South Korea profile:
  • In 2007, the country decided for the first time to test all students in grades 6, 9, and 10 with plans to release the results at the regional, district, and school levels...It seems President Lee Myung-bak was persuaded by key advisors that comparisons and competition among the regions and schools was necessary for Korea's educational and economic advancement. Still others in his administration viewed the "sunshine and shame" approach as crucial to successful exercise of school choice. Unfortunately, some are not sold on the merits of transparent and disaggregated student reports. Teachers and teachers unions, for instance, have vocalized vehement opposition, even organized demonstrations. They argue that since Korean students already do a fine job on standardized measures (such as TIMSS and PISA), they would be better

    ...

    The College Board, as always, hung a smiley face on it, but the latest SAT results are a real bummer.??Overall scores flat or down. Almost every sub-group flat or down. Gaps widening a bit by race, income, parental education. Indeed, the tidiest relationships and smoothest curves are those that continue--as they have for as long as anyone can remember--to show the steady upward progression of average SAT scores (pdf) as family incomes and parents' education rise. Also see here (pdf), especially Table 11.

    Now recall edition after edition of NAEP results also showing 12th grade scores stagnant or declining.

    Now recall the recent ACT report indicating that barely one in four of the high school students taking that organization's tests are fully prepared for college-level academic work.

    Now recall our flat high-school graduation rate.

    Now please sing out if you've spotted any good news regarding the readiness of American adolescents to face successfully the challenges of higher education, the workforce, adulthood and citizenship. I can't find it. (OK, OK, I found one: Asian-American SAT scores are up again.)

    What does this say about 26 years of education reforming since A Nation at Risk? For starters, it says the reform efforts haven't seriously penetrated our high schools. Then it says that current moves (e.g., the "Common Core" national standards project of the governors and chiefs) to align high-school exit expectations to college and workforce readiness are...

    The Education Gadfly

    FUN FACT FRIDAY! You wait all week... and you won't be disappointed. In our FINAL Fun Fact Friday video, we use data from a recent Fordham report, The Accountability Illusion, to show you how some states set the bar high for their students--and some don't. Watch our Play-Doh men do the Twizzler high jump in this first ever education track meet.

    Fun Fact Friday! - Setting the standards bar from Education Gadfly on Vimeo.

    Sources:

    "The Accountability Illusion : Data Map," John Cronin et al, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, February 2009.

    Crowd sounds from??freesound.org

    Writing in the Baltimore Sun earlier this week, the Lexington Institute's Robert Holland and Don Soifer reject the idea of national education standards on three grounds: that they're not truly voluntary, that they'll inevitably lead to a much-feared "national curriculum, and that part of the roadkill will be Maryland having to replace its "rich," "well-organized" English standards with this unproven multi-state model.

    It's premature to evaluate the products of the current "common standards" project being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers for the subjects of reading/writing and math. The first "public" draft is promised to be available for comment in mid-September. (I saw an earlier version of the reading/writing part a few weeks back??and, within some important limits and caveats, found considerable merit there.)

    Yes, those who abhor the thought of national education standards and tests for the United States will find all sorts of reasons to oppose them. I don't know if the forthcoming product, once fully massaged, will be to my liking. But I do know that our present motley array of state-specific standards and assessments is??obsolete and dysfunctional--as well as mediocre or worse in many states. (There are a few happy exceptions.)

    In Maryland, for example, the last time Fordham examined that state's standards (2006),??our evaluators gave them an overall C+ grade--including a flat C in English (down from B a few years earlier). Maybe Maryland has since cleaned up its act--we're embarking on...

    Gov. Strickland needs to make up his mind about what to do with persistently failing schools in Ohio. Most recently, Strickland's position seemed to indicate that closure was out of the question. As Gongwer News Service reported, Strickland referenced the state constitution as his primary justification.

    "Gov. Strickland said a failed Senate amendment, that would have applied the same closure standards for both charters and traditional public schools would have violated the constitutional requirement to provide a free education for Ohio's students.

    "I think chronically failing public schools should be reorganized, closed, the leadership should be changed," he said. "So I'm not willing to let public schools off the hook either, but the fact is that it's not possible to actually close a public school because the state is constitutionally required to maintain public schools for the students of our state." (see here for more on this, and Strickland's conversation with Secretary Duncan about charters).

    However, it wasn't long ago that Strickland was proposing legislation to shut down entire school districts for non-compliance. During his January State of the State Address, he said, "In short, if a school district fails, we will shut it down." School accountability is one of Strickland's six pillars for reforming Ohio's school system, with "revoking the school district's charter and shutting down the district" listed as the fourth possible consequence for district non-compliance.

    Normally, I wouldn't spend a Friday morning pointing out inconsistencies like this, just for spite....

    Today at a conference hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, titled Teachers'?? Use of Data to Impact Teaching and Learning , I was quickly reminded of how critical it is to be explicit in describing what one means by phrases like "data-driven instruction." The presenters called for a "fundamental shift" in the way the teaching profession thinks about assessment and student learning. In the new paradigm, teachers would take responsibility for the achievement of all students. They would embrace testing as a tool to improve student learning, rather than bristling at it (see an earlier post about why Cleveland State University education professor Karly Wheatley is wrong to demonize testing).

    This sounds like common sense, but it might not be. I wonder if perhaps the two camps (those who rally behind increased testing and data-driven instruction, and those who show hostility toward it) are using two totally different definitions of "testing." Today's conference reiterated that assessment can take many forms, and encompasses far more than the end-of-year summary assessments???i.e. state standardized tests. I imagine this is the type of testing that Wheatley has in mind when he describes the collateral damage it creates. But what about formative assessments that can be given every week or every few weeks, to signal whether students have mastered the most recently taught objectives? If interim assessments allow teachers to create richer lesson plans, know the status of each and every student, and be more far more effective in...

    Amy Fagan

    Stay tuned???..tomorrow we will be releasing our next report: "The Great Graduation Rate Debate." It's a very helpful primer on a very complex topic, and it'll be up on our website in the morning!

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