Standards, Testing & Accountability

It was the best of times…

…for the Republican Party. Election Day 2014 was a rout, with the GOP winning full control of Congress and its largest House majority since World War II. Republican governors were re-elected in Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, and Maine. Democrat Pat Quinn was booted out of office in President Obama’s home state of Illinois. Republican now control two-thirds of state legislatures too. The GOP groundswell “will be good for education reform, especially reforms of the school-choice variety,” predicted Fordham’s Mike Petrilli

It was the worst of times…

...for teachers’ unions. “It’s open season on teacher employment protection laws in U.S. state courts,” noted Fordham’s Brandon Wright on the heels of June’s Vergara v. California verdict holding California’s tenure laws unconstitutional. And the hits just kept on coming. In October, the commission that runs the financially troubled Philadelphia public school system unilaterally canceled the union’s contract and ruled teachers must contribute to their health insurance to free up money for classrooms. (A good decision to avoid the big squeeze.) Election Day made the annus horribilis complete. The $60 million...

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...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the fourth entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. Earlier entries can be found herehere, and here.

Schneider: We ended our last post with a question about school funding. You seem to be more concerned with the issue of accountability than I am. And I appear to be more concerned with equal funding.

So it seems like maybe we have a chicken and egg issue here.

I don't think you can begin to talk accountability seriously until you have a relatively equal playing field. You seem hesitant to channel funds to organizations that can't meet accountability targets. Can you talk through your position for me?

Smarick: My position on funding in a nutshell is: I want every school in America to have the money necessary so every child can succeed, but we need to appreciate that more funding won't necessarily generate better results. 

So let's first put some basic facts on the table.

The U.S. now spends close to $700 billion annually on K–12...

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).

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

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...