Standards, Testing & Accountability

It was back-to-school night last week at my son’s elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland, which meant that we moms and dads got a first look at “Learning for the Future: A Parent’s Guide to Grade 1 Curriculum 2.0.” (I would link to it online, but it’s not online, ostensibly to protect its value as a commercial product. [UPDATE: The parents' guide actually is available here, as the good folks at MCPS kindly pointed out.] Several years ago, MCPS sold the curriculum to Pearson. Which is rather bizarre, but that's a subject for another post.)

Let me start by saying that MCPS does a lot of things right. My son’s teacher, who has her own classroom for the first time this year, seems great (and graduated from one of the best teacher prep programs in the country, according to NCTQ). She also gets a ton of support from her fellow teachers, and from the central office, which is simply not available in the typical American school. (And that is the sort of support that both Dana Goldstein and...

Heated debate has erupted over changes to Ohio’s new standards, assessments, and accountability policies. Most significantly, the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics has triggered efforts to roll back the new standards and the assessments associated with them. In addition to the Common Core, the state is undertaking other bold but controversial reforms, including the Third Grade Reading Guarantee—aimed at improving early literacy—and evaluations of teachers and principals that factor in student achievement.

These policy reforms reflect a shifting paradigm in K-12 education. For years, it was assumed that schools would provide an adequate education for all students. Since the early 2000s, prodded by federal law, states adopted policies whereby students have been required to meet “proficiency” benchmarks on state tests. This policy framework has moved the achievement needle forward: Disadvantaged students, for one, have demonstrated gains over the past decade on national assessments.

Yet the academic standards in Ohio and in many states across the nation remained too low, and student outcomes mediocre. The minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do failed to match the demands of colleges and employers. As a result, Ohio and other...

The 2013-14 school year marked the first year of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee (TGRG), a law that requires the retention of children not reading on grade level to be retained. This initiative was modeled after similar legislation in Florida and other states. The policy is also based on research that shows that students who can’t read on grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate than a child who reads proficiently. These numbers are even higher for children who live in poverty, particularly Black and Hispanic students.

In a TGRG document posted on its website, the Ohio Department of Education notes that approximately 24,000 students drop out of Ohio high schools each year. They go on to say that most of the students who drop out do not have the reading skills necessary for future success, and that the Third Grade Reading Guarantee is a way of ensuring support for struggling readers early in life.  At Fordham, we’ve long said that reading is important to long-term success, and research shows that third grade is a pivotal year. But with all this focus on third grade, we could be missing another pivotal year that’s just as...

In many school districts, classroom observations make up as much as 75 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores, according to a new study published in Education Next. And these scores predict a teacher’s ability to raise student test scores the following year, as measured by value-added models. With that in mind, analysts did a deep-dive into the observation practices of four school districts. They found that score stability and the quality of the information gathered improved as the number of individual observations increased, and that evaluations by trained, independent, outside evaluators (instead of principals) were more predictive of the following year’s value-added gains. The report recommends that districts observe teachers at least two or three times annually, using an outside observer at least once. Moreover, the study draws attention to the latent bias against teachers with lower-achieving students or who teach in struggling schools. Although value-added models are careful to control for students’ backgrounds and achievement levels, there’s often no such adjustment for classroom observations. (Simply put, it can be much harder to teach a great lesson when the kids are below grade level or unruly.) Unchecked, this can push teachers to avoid assignments at more challenging schools where the need...

Ohio’s school and district report cards were released last week, nearly a month later than originally scheduled due to inclement weather….back in February and March. No matter; they’re here now and every education stakeholder is poring over them. But to what purpose are these troves of data being put? 

Out of the gate, stories in the media focused on the “big picture” issues: urban districts (pretty bad, with some rays of hope) and dropout recovery schools (same, minus most of those rays of hope). A single grade for “overall performance” is still not being given this year but should be available in 2016. That left analysts digging through a variety of indicators at all levels. Performance index scores, value-added calculations (very confusing), graduation rates, and other factors were considered, either in isolation or in tandem, producing very different conclusions depending on how the measures were parsed or weighted by the investigators. It is tempting to say that certain foregone conclusions were bolstered by the ways in which data were considered or not considered, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that getting an analysis of such a wealth of information out the...

Since the beginning of the No Child Left Behind era, most schools in all 50 states have been given an evaluation of student performance and an overall rating. While crafting a thoughtful and nuanced accountability system is a frequent topic of discussion on The Gadfly (and is really what matters most), here I simply want to discuss the label that sums up a school's overall evaluation. Some might say it's wrong on principle to label schools. Others worry (and sometimes justifiably so) that a nuanced view of schools get lost when we attempt to boil it all down to a single school rating. Moreover, some may see these labels as nothing but a value judgment about "good" schools and "bad" schools when it's clear that parents value many different things about a school. From academics and facilities to safety and course offerings, even the "best" school might not be best for all kids. 

However, we can make objective judgments in some areas.  In addition, use of these labels is not only widely supported, it's also ingrained in federal policy through both NCLB and waivers. So the question is: If we're going to put schools into categories, what should those categories be called?  A few ideas to consider:

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Fuzz-free math

CCSS myths, noncognitive skills, Dana Goldstein, and gifted ed.

Amber's Research Minute

Does Gifted Education Work? For Which Students?, by David Card and Laura Giuliano, National Bureau of Economic Research (September 2014).

For over a year, I’ve been encouraging Common Core advocates to stop endlessly re-litigating the standards and instead to focus on getting implementation right. Taking my own advice last week, I traveled to Reno to see first-hand the work of the Core Task Project, the initiative driving implementation of the standards in Washoe County, Nevada.

It was a refreshing and invigorating visit. Common Core is not without controversy anywhere. But Reno seems to have largely sidestepped some of the more heated battles. Washoe County’s implementation has become something of a national model—being one of four case studies highlighted in Fordham’s report Common Core in the Districts, published in February 2014.

Reno’s relative peace can be explained, I think, by several factors. First and foremost, under the leadership of curriculum and instruction specialist Aaron Grossman, implementation has focused on the right things—including building a coherent body of knowledge across and within grades (one of the broad “instructional shifts,” along with reading for evidence and a greater focus on complex and nonfiction text)—that are easy to rally around and hard to dismiss as unimportant.

But more importantly,...

School report cards arrived today. The good news is that Ohio has a waiver from No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) “100 percent proficiency” mandate for 2013-14. Very few Ohio schools, I suspect, hit the 100 percent mark in math and reading in 2013-14. (A rough read of district and charter-school data, indicate that a couple high-achieving charters came close; for instance, in grades 3-8 Columbus Preparatory missed 100 percent proficiency in just fifth-grade reading. Menlo Park Academy, a charter for gifted students, came close too.)

A good first step to understanding state assessments is looking at student proficiency. Proficiency is a one-year snapshot of student performance, measured by state exams, not necessarily a clear indicator of the performance of their school per se. For a clearer understanding of the impact of a school on achievement, we’d want to look at student-growth measures, such as the state’s value-added data. (We’ll unpack the value-added results in more depth in the near future—so stay tuned.) But proficiency does give us a general sense of how students performed on state exams in 2013-14.

Statewide, around one-in-five students fell short of Ohio’s standard for proficiency, though there is some variation across...

On September 9th, the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli participated in an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on the Common Core, along with Carmel Martin, Carol Burris, and Rick Hess. These are his opening comments, as prepared for delivery. Or watch the video, embedded below, starting at minute 07:15.

Let me tell you a bit about the game plan that Carmel and I have sketched out.

First, I’m going to talk about the motion. What does it mean to “embrace the Common Core”?

Then I’m going to discuss the problems that the Common Core is designed to address—the problems with our education system and, frankly, with some of our previous education reform efforts.

Carmel will take up the potential of the Common Core to help narrow the achievement gaps in this country; the role that evidence and educators played in the development of the standards; and the issue of implementation—how it’s going and how we can help...

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