Standards, Testing & Accountability

With a few exceptions, most of the races decided yesterday didn’t hinge on education reform. But the outcome will have big implications for education policy nonetheless.

That was certainly true in 2010, when a voter backlash against Obamacare triggered a wave of Republican victories, especially at the state level, which in turn set the stage for major progress on education reform priorities in 2011 (rightfully dubbed “the year of school choice” by the Wall Street Journal). In fact, as Ty Eberhardt and I have argued, 2010’s Republican surge deserves more credit for the education reforms of the past several years than does Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top:

So here we are again, with Republicans winning stunning victories in races for governor’s mansions and statehouses nationwide. And once again this will be good for education reform, especially reforms of the school-choice variety. Voucher and tax-credit programs in Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona will continue apace; charter caps may be lifted and bad laws amended in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois; comprehensive reform efforts in New Mexico, Nevada, and Michigan have a new lease on life.

There’s good news for reformers on...

Over the last five years, prodded by the feds, states have adopted teacher evaluation systems. According to a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, forty-one states, including Ohio, now require evaluations that include objective measures of student achievement. These aren’t the meat-axe assessments of yesteryear, though. These next-generation teacher evaluations combine classroom observations using new prescriptive protocols with quantitative evidence of learning gains on state tests (or another form of assessment) to determine each teacher’s effectiveness.

The national focus on teacher evaluations raises a couple of questions. First, why have states chosen to focus on teacher evaluations (i.e. what’s the problem that policymakers are trying to solve)? Second, are the new evaluations proving effective in solving the problem?

Let’s start with the why. Recall all the evidence that the single most important in-school factor for student achievement is teacher quality. If we know that good teachers make a difference, it's not surprising that we've focused on evaluating them. Such evaluations hold the potential to identify great teachers whom we can reward, retain, and/or hold up as models, struggling or developing teachers whom we can help to improve, and ineffective teachers who should be removed from...

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...

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).

Morgan Polikoff

Election Day is less than a week away. Given the heat around major education policies—especially Common Core and teacher evaluations—there is increased attention to public attitudes about education. A number of polls from major news organizations, education groups, and universities have been commissioned over the past several months, and education pundits and advocates on all sides of current reform debates have endlessly parsed the results.

Unfortunately these pundits are mostly misguided, and public opinion polls on education don’t mean what people think they mean. What follows are three conclusions, all based on data from these various polls, and a discussion of what they ought to mean for education policy and advocacy going forward.

Conclusion 1: Americans’ views on education are incoherent.

The most straightforward conclusion from existing polling data is that Americans’ views are all over the map and, depending on the issue, either nuanced or contradictory. The clearest example of this is on standardized testing. The 2013 Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll found that just 22 percent of the public thought that standardized tests have helped local public schools. But when asked about specific test-related policies—some of...

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
  • ...

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...

In his recent State of the Schools speech, Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) CEO Eric Gordon referred to a 2013 column in the Plain Dealer comparing him to the ancient Greek king Sisyphus. As every school kid used to know, Sisyphus rolled a boulder up a mountain each day, only to watch it roll back down. He was doomed to spend the rest of eternity repeating this pointless task as a punishment for his greed and deceit—a kind of Greek myth Groundhog Day

The comparison of Gordon and Sisyphus is unfair. The punishment of Sisyphus, at its heart, is one constructed to impose hopelessness and despair. There is certainly much work to be done in Cleveland, but as we at Fordham have pointed out before (see here) there are also reasons to be hopeful about Cleveland’s progress. There is no room for Sisyphus in the fight to improve Ohio schools.

That being said, the English teacher in me appreciates the allusion. It even got me thinking about other ancient figures who might better symbolize the Buckeye state’s struggle to give its kids the best education—an education that all students deserve, but far too few receive. There’s the...

On Wednesday, CCSSO (the organization of state superintendents) joined with CGCS (the organization of big urban school districts) to announce joint plans to reassess and scale back testing programs. This is big news, and it’s getting lots of attention. Here are the ten big things to know about the announcement.

  1.  A direct response to testing concerns. These two leading organizations are clearly responding to the pressure to reduce or end testing emanating from the AFT, former President Clinton, Secretary Duncan, and others. They’re agreeing to audit the number and types of tests administered and develop new systems that are leaner (eliminating “multiple assessments of the same students for similar purposes”) and more integrated (“complement each other in a way the defines a coherent system of measures”).
  2. Won’t back down. CCSSO and CGCS, however, are standing firm on testing, and the most vociferous anti-testing forces aren’t happy about it (Randi Weingarten, for example, said the plan fails to address the fundamental problem of “test fixation”). The joint statement makes clear these leaders believe deeply in the value of smart
  3. ...

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