Standards, Testing & Accountability

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I vividly remember a seventh-grade English teacher telling our class, with great solemnity, “Small minds use big words.”

For years, this guided my writing.

Until I figured out how wrong, how profoundly wrong, she had been.

And that’s why I’m so concerned about the new SAT’s approach to vocabulary—namely cutting “obscure” and “arcane” words. According to the Times,The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary challenges will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, like ‘empirical’ and ‘synthesis.’”

Over the last 25 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that maximizing the words at one’s disposal is indispensable for two reasons.

First, words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.

Jane Austen is known for her extensive vocabulary, which can cause eye rolling: “blowsy,” “solicitude,” “diffident,” “abstruse,” and “licentiousness.”

But as I read her books, dictionary always nearby, I found that every single time she used an unfamiliar word, it was because that word was exactly right; it captured the nuance she intended to convey.

For example, in one famous case, she might’ve used “shy” but chose “diffident” instead.

Why?...

Discussions about current education-reform efforts are typically focused on three separate topics: the Common Core standards, the new tests, and the curriculum. The alignment among the three seems to receive little attention—though it is a critical matter, as the degree of alignment will determine the validity of student test scores. One may presume that the tests currently being prepared by the two consortia of states are closely aligned with the standards. But in cases where states are making or buying their own tests, there is less assurance.

The creation of a curriculum, the provision of instructional materials, and the training of teachers is the purview of the states. This will lead to what I call “the delivered curriculum”—what the students are taught in the classroom. The degree to which the delivered curriculum matches the standards, as well as the alignment of the test, will determine the degree to which the test results are valid. This would seem to be elementary, but getting it to happen is a daunting challenge.

It is daunting because the standards are considered higher than those now in most states. New pedagogies are required. The training is expensive and time consuming—and there is a question of how many qualified instructors are available to provide the training, as well as how much time already-busy teachers are being allocated for the training. Another question concerns what funds can be made available in cash-strapped states. The degree to which teachers are prepared will inevitably vary among states and school...

Warnings have been issued. Schools, both district and charter, are scurrying to get prepared. This spring, Ohio’s third-grade students will take a reading assessment, and those students unable to achieve a minimum score will have one more chance to remediate and pass in the summer—or repeat third grade.

This policy, known in Ohio as the “third-grade reading guarantee,” was adopted in 2012 as a result of Senate Bill 316 and was expected to generate some controversy when implemented. That prospect for most, however, was little more than an expected storm on day ten of a ten-day weather forecast. It could be bad, but who knows! Maybe the storm would miss us.

In October, the state administered a reading assessment to third graders across the state. The results weren’t good, with more than one-third of students failing to reach the score necessary to advance to the fourth grade. The ten-day forecast grew into a storm “warning” overnight, but the correctness of the prediction is not a cause for celebration. As with most storms, it’s important to follow a few simple steps.

First, stay calm. There have been times when the reaction to a storm is almost as intense and as big of a story as the storm itself. In some places, this buildup has begun with stories questioning the ability of districts to implement the third-grade reading guarantee. It’s important to focus on the facts of the situation. KidsOhio.org released a report last week that does just that....

Ohio has the third-largest number of students enrolled in virtual education in the country. And many of the purveyors of online education are, apparently, not producing strong results for their students. It seems imperative that parents, legislators, taxpayers, and virtual-schooling advocates take action to ensure accountability for these schools, which are now expanding again in Ohio after a moratorium borne out of previous quality concerns. Public Impact has published a new report suggesting that what is needed is not anything new or unusual in terms of accountability measures—in fact, the same sorts of accountability mechanisms and processes we insist upon for brick-and-mortar schools can easily be adapted to help assess virtual schools, as well. And it may even be easier with virtual schools, as electronic data is readily available and easily portable in most areas of measurement and reporting. Where it seems that accountability for virtual schools does break down is in their unique structure. For example, on the input side, many teacher-prep programs don’t deal with the needs of virtual education, yet teachers are licensed the same for online and brick-and-mortar schools. Fully online schools are uniquely unsuited to site visits, a staple element of best practice for charter-school authorizing. Student enrollment, grading, and tracking processes may be very different for virtual schools, but they may also represent new ways that brick-and-mortar schools could address these very same issues. In the end, the authors’ findings include a need to focus accountability for all schools on outcomes; to...

As the debate over education reforms like the Common Core rage across the country, policy makers, advocates, pundits, and wonks clamor to have their views heard. In the din, the voices of teachers—upon whose shoulders the success of education reform ultimately lies—are sometimes drowned out. The third iteration of Scholastic’s Primary Sources survey (the first two were released in 2009 and 2011) provides powerful insight into teachers’ attitudes towards their profession, Common Core implementation, and teacher evaluations. Of the 20,000 teachers who participated, most showed enthusiasm for the new Common Core standards. Indeed, 57 percent of teachers in Common Core states believe that the standards will have a positive impact on students, outweighing those who believe the opposite by an impressive seven-to-one ratio; 35 percent say they will not make much of a difference. (It’s interesting to note that this view contradicts the impression given by the National Education Association last week.) However, teachers do remain cautious: 73 percent reported that implementing the standards will be challenging, and the same proportion noted that it will force them to make changes to their current teaching practices. It is therefore unsurprising that almost all respondents asked for additional time to find curricular materials and quality CCSS-based professional development (this syncs with our new study). Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from this study is that fewer than 10 percent of teachers believe their voices are heard at the national and state level. Yet 98 percent see teaching...

Dara and the Following

Dara’s taste in TV shows is questionable, but her ed-policy knowledge is not. She and Michelle dish on Common Core implementation, student-data privacy, and marketing in schools. Amber gets pensive about pensions.

Amber's Research Minute

Missouri Charter Schools and Teacher Pension Plans: How Well Do Existing Pension Plans Serve Charter and Urban Teachers? by Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, Michael Podgursky, and P. Brett Xiang, (Kansas City, MO: Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, February 2014).

The Common Core State Standards are in place in forty-five states—and in many of those jurisdictions, educators are hard at work trying to bring them to life in their schools and classrooms.

But how is implementation going so far? That’s what this new study explores in four “early-implementer” school systems. Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers provides an in-depth examination of real educators as they earnestly attempt to put higher standards into practice.

To learn more, download the report and read about it on Common Core Watch.

The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

ObamaCare is a federal program through and through. Created by an act of Congress, it puts federal bureaucrats in charge of one-sixth of the economy, overrules state regulatory bodies (regarding insurance and much else), involves a massive redistribution of public and private dollars, and excludes any sort of “opt out” provision for states. (Thanks to the Supreme Court, states can refuse the Medicaid expansion, but they are stuck with everything else.)

The contrast with the Common Core could not be starker. This was an initiative launched by the governors and state school leaders well before Barack Obama was even a serious contender for the presidency, much less seated in the White House. It had momentum prior to the 2008 election as state policymakers...

Morgan Polikoff

Of all the current political threats to the Common Core, the most dangerous is the brewing backlash from the teachers' unions. To be sure, the GOP-Tea Party rebellion against federal intrusion is also threatening and holds the possibility of leading to repeal in several states. However, I don't view that threat as particularly solvable—there's no policy tweak or line of argument that would convince those folks to change their minds in any major way. In contrast, the threat from teachers and the unions is relatively easily solved.

Both major unions have been vocal advocates of the Common Core so far, including conducting polls showing most teachers support the standards and building partnerships with tech companies to spur implementation. However, there are signs that support is wavering. In particular, Randi Weingarten (head of AFT) has been treading an increasingly fine line on Common Core—supportive of the standards, but also saying their implementation is 'far worse' than the Obamacare rollout and bashing teacher-evaluation policies in the same breath as she critiques Common Core. (Just yesterday, the NEA’s Dennis Van Roekel piled on with harsh words of his own.)

Let's be clear—the growing union pushback is to some extent about teacher evaluation. (How much one thinks it's really about evaluation probably depends on where one stands on the unions more generally.) But there is no inherent reason why Common Core and new teacher-evaluation policies have to be linked with one another. One need not have common standards to redesign teacher evaluation, and vice versa. The major unforced...

Oops, he did it again. Eric Owens, the infamous Daily Caller “reporter” who has never seen a silly math problem he wasn’t willing to ascribe to the Common Core (the truth be damned!), has published yet another howler deploring a math problem purportedly of Common Core lineage. But this time he trades his trademark dishonesty for mathematical ignorance.

This flawed “front-end estimation” method wasn’t invented by the people behind Common Core. The concept—which refers to the correct answer to an addition problem as merely “reasonable” and allows students to be off by over 22 percent in their estimation—has been around for decades.

At the same time, the methodology is aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which attempts to standardize various K–12 curricula around the country.

This math lesson is just one more in the constantly burgeoning inventory of hideous Common Core math problems.

Being mathematically ignorant myself, I asked Jason Zimba, a lead author of the Common Core standards, if the standards do in fact promote this approach. Here’s what he had to say:

State standards have always set expectations for estimating the results of computations. Here for example was one of the previous California standards from grade 3:

“Use estimation to verify the reasonableness of calculated results.”

And here was one of the previous Indiana standards from grade 2:

“Use estimation to decide whether answers are reasonable in addition problems.”

And here was one of the previous Massachusetts standards from grade

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