Standards, Testing & Accountability

Before the age of standards and tests, teachers generally taught the textbook. They began on page one and got as far as they could before the end of June, sometimes racing through the last four chapters in less time than they devoted to the first.

Standards, testing, and accountability changed that. Now there are clearly defined goals that all students must meet, and teachers are asked to ensure not just “coverage,” but that all students master a predetermined set of content and skills.

That means today’s curriculum and instruction are driven not by where you began but by where you want to end up. In a data-driven, results-oriented classroom, good teachers begin with the standards and “backmap” from June to September to ensure that the most critical or difficult topics get the instructional time they deserve.

This approach makes sense for most subjects, where the standards describe the actual content that students need to master within and across grades. Math, for instance, is a hierarchical subject with a logical progression of skills and content. Yearlong curriculum plans can be devised and focused on ensuring adequate time to master all of the key standards. And teachers who themselves are math experts...

[Editor's note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading. The first post can be found here.]

 In my first post, I focused on the controversy over prior knowledge. Common Core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.

That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information.

They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean.

The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because...

[Editor's note: This is part one of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading.]

An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

Research findings were very clear: Readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world, and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.

Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that readers knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading...

On November 11th, the Fordham Institute’s Chester E. Finn, Jr. addressed a private meeting of reform-minded Catholic education leaders and philanthropists. What follows is adapted from his remarks on that occasion.

Two big changes in American education policy over the past several decades have been good for the country and for kids in general, but not particularly good for Catholic schools, especially the urban variety.

First, families now have myriad choices, many different kinds of schools and ways of getting educated, so we no longer take for granted that our child will go to your neighborhood or parish school. Second, we now judge schools by their results, not by their inputs, intentions, or reputations, and we’re increasingly hard-nosed about those results, looking—probably too much—at test scores and graduation rates and such.

Both of these changes have tended to leave Catholic schools behind. With some worthy exceptions, their leaders haven’t tried very hard to take advantage of them. They haven’t been nimble or enterprising in making use of the opportunities presented by new forms of publicly supported choice. Nor have they—or private schools generally—done well in...

Fordham Institute to evaluate Common Core assessments on quality and content alignment

PARCC, Smarter Balanced, ACT Aspire, and Massachusetts participating in landmark study

Media Contact:
Michelle Lerner
mlerner@edexcellence.net
202-223-5452


Washington, D.C. (November 19, 2014) — The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has launched a new study to evaluate the quality and content alignment of PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and ACT Aspire to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Fordham’s study will be published in summer 2015.

As part of the effort, Fordham will also evaluate the 2014 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a high-quality state assessment, for Common Core alignment under an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The promise of the Common Core State Standards, implemented faithfully, is improved education and life outcomes for millions of American children,” noted...

A few weeks ago, I bemoaned an Education Trust report positing that schools shouldn’t get A grades if they have significant achievement gaps, even if their students are making lots of progress. I guess I didn’t make a convincing case, particularly to the folks at 400 Maryland Avenue. As Anne Hyslop reported, the newly announced NCLB waiver guidelines now ask states for “a demonstration that a school may not receive the highest rating in the state’s accountability system if there are significant achievement or graduation rate gaps in the school that are not closing.” As Anne wrote, “this is almost verbatim from the recommendations” put forth by Ed Trust.

But is this a smart idea? Consider the case of Sawgrass Elementary School in Broward County, Florida. Let’s examine its stats (downloaded from this Florida Department of Education site). First look at the demographics, which show it to be a rare model of racial and socio-economic diversity:

  • 27 percent white
  • 28 percent black
  • 37 percent Hispanic
  • 6 percent Asian
  • 54 percent disadvantaged
  • 29 percent English language learners (ELL)

As for academic performance, Sawgrass has been making big...

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...

Common Core has the potential to shift and drastically improve math instruction in American schools, but its detractors have marshalled a raucous opposition to its proposed changes. We’ve already examined the questionable arguments against Common Core literacy standards; now we’re turning our sights to math.

September’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate pitted Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli and the Center for American Progress’s Carmel Martin against the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and New York principal Carol Burris. Hess and Burris are two of Common Core’s most eloquent and energetic critics, but the position they mounted against the initiative’s math standards is not a strong one. It can essentially be boiled down to three points:

1.) The standards confuse children.

This is perhaps the most common critique of Common Core math. As the new standards have been implemented (seldom perfectly) in participating states, districts, and schools, children have sometimes been assigned math problems that would make a structural engineer scratch her head. Parents accustomed to the “classic style” of teaching math—long worksheets of standard algorithms with one or two word problems...

There’s a wonderfully apt saying about why debates in the U.S. Senate last so long: “Everything’s been said but not everyone has said it yet.”  In that spirit, I offer my admittedly late thoughts on last night’s results. (It was a late night, so you may want to triangulate the real story by also reading the reactions from Eduwonk, Rick Hess, Eduflack, and Mike Petrilli.)

  1. The Uncertain Edu-meaning of the GOP Triumph: It was obviously a gigantic night for Republicans. They won just about every race imaginable. But it’s not clear what views, if any, all of these new office-holders share. Some are pro-Common Core; some aren’t. Some love choice and charters; some are more traditional. So we’ll have to stay tuned to see how this landslide settles.
  2. End of the Obama-Duncan Era: We’ll have to wait and see what the new reform era holds, but it feels more and more like the heady days of Race to the Top, ARRA, etc., are behind us. Secretary Duncan’s team still has work to
  3. ...

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...

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