Standards, Testing, & Accountability

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 it go better.

Let’s be clear: we’re not going to argue that the Common Core standards are perfect. They aren’t. They weren’t handed down from Mt. Sinai.

We’re not going to argue that the Common Core is going to solve all of our educational problems. It won’t. No one reform...

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We seemed to have welcomed good manners back to the Common Core debate. That doesn’t mean we’ve seen more advocacy either on behalf of the standards or knocking them, only that the tenor appears to have changed for the better. At least for the time being, detractors are no longer paranoid Neanderthals, and supporters have ceased to be communists on the federal or Gates Foundation dole.

Whether this détente will prove to be ephemeral or lasting is anyone’s guess, but some credit should go to one CCSS advocate and one foe. In a Washington Times op-ed, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Neal McCluskey of Cato, hoping to tamp down the “raucous debate,” sought to re-ground the conversation in a number of facts.

Their piece argues, among other things, that both sides have good intentions; that much Common Core activity began before President Obama was elected, that much of that activity has been led by non-government bodies; and that federal policy—stretching from 1994 to this administration’s Race to the Top and ESEA waivers—has played a meaningful role in the standards’ adoption and implementation.

There are other clear signs of restraint. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee recently told a crowd that the Common Core fight should be dialed back. Though her union is still frustrated with implementation, AFT head Randi Weingarten penned an op-ed lauding the promise of the standards. Common Core co-author David Coleman recently denounced insulting language directed at opponents, and Glenn Beck scaled back his...

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Over the past four years on this blog, I’ve strived to advance a substantive conversation around standards and assessment through complex (and hopefully interesting) policy arguments. But finding new things to advance a discussion sometimes means losing sight of large and obvious things that need to be said over and over again. So, in my first post since returning to the world of schools, I want to make a completely obvious point: standards-aligned, summative tests are really, really important to providing students—especially our most disadvantaged students—with the education they deserve.

Yet, in the increasingly acerbic debate over school reform, these kinds of state-driven standardized tests have become an easy scapegoat for everything that ails education policy broadly and standards-driven reform more specifically. Indeed, with all the political capital being spent to save Common Core, opponents of the accountability side of standards-and-accountability-driven reform have seized an opportunity to push back against statewide testing mandates—to throw the tests under the bus in order to “save” the standards.

Leading the charge are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the nation’s largest teachers unions, who’ve long pushed back on the notion that assessment data should be a factor in school and/or teacher accountability. This summer, the NEA capitalized on the anti-CCSS momentum to launch a targeted campaign against “toxic testing.” And NEA president Lily Eskelsen García went as far as saying that that state CCSS-aligned tests are “corrupting the Common Core” and that they are made by people who “don’t have a clue” what they’re doing.

Adding insult...

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One of the arguments I’ve long made in support of Common Core is that properly understood and implemented, it’s a delivery mechanism for the ideas and work of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and the Core Knowledge curriculum he created.

It’s gratifying—and, alas, too rare—when others connect the dots. But here is Politico, out with its list of fifty “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter.” Sharing number eight on the list is Hirsch and David Coleman, the principal author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.

Hirsch’s work and output span decades, but a principal thrust of his ideas can be summarized thusly: reading comprehension is not a “skill” we can teach directly, practice, or master. It is not like riding a bike, where if you learn on one you can ride another with ease. Once you learn to “decode” the words on a page, your ability to read with understanding is largely a reflection of how much knowledge and vocabulary you have and share with the writer.

If schools understood and embraced this well-grounded insight, American education—and elementary education specifically—would look very different. There would be a lot less “question the author” and “find the main idea.” Instead you’d see teachers (especially those who work with our poorest children) restored, in David Coleman’s lovely and apt phrase, “to their rightful place as guides to the universe.” You’d see big chunks of the K-5 school day handed over to science, history, geography, and the...

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Neal P. McCluskey

photo credit: flazingo_photos via photopin cc

Over the past couple of years, a raucous debate has emerged over the Common Core, content standards in English and mathematics adopted by states nationwide. The debate has been marked by acrimony rather than analysis, but there is hope that both sides want a reset. We—one Core advocate, one opponent—want to assist by laying out the facts on which we think everyone should agree.

What are some signs of detente? Core architect David Coleman recently decried characterizations of Core opponents “as crazies or people who don’t tell the truth,” while strategists at firebrand Glenn Beck’s “We Will Not Conform” event called for ditching invective like “ObamaCore” or “communist plot.”

Now, the facts.

First, there is no evidence that most Core opponents or advocates are ill-intentioned. There’s no compelling reason to believe, for instance, that Bill Gates is funding Core advocacy for any reason other than that he thinks it is beneficial, or that opponents are motivated by anything other than concern that the standards are inadequate, or amount to dangerous national standardization.

Next, the Core was not created by Washington, but groups that saw crummy state standards and tests and agreed on the need to improve their quality. In particular, these organizations wanted to ensure that “proficient” meant the same thing in Mississippi as Massachusetts, and sought to reduce the huge proportion of people arriving at college or workplaces without the skills to...

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In NRO today, Rick Hess explores “five half-truths” that he says supporters of the Common Core like to propagate. These spurred five questions of my own:

  1. You dispute that the Common Core standards are “evidenced based” because “what the Common Core’s authors did falls well short of what ‘evidence-based’ typically means.” By your definition, would any set of standards be considered evidence-based? Such as those previously in place in the states? Or any set of education standards one might develop in the future? (Or, for that matter, in myriad other fields?) If no, then what’s your point? Do you think we should abandon standards-based reform?
  2. Relatedly, would you consider elements of the Common Core to be evidence-based? Such as their focus on scientifically-based reading instruction in the early grades, or the demand for fluency in arithmetic, or the admonition to delay calculator use? Would you disagree that those decisions were based on evidence? Do you think states should go back to standards that don’t include these evidence-based expectations?
  3. You complain that the Common Core standards don’t include calculus. Do you think states should expect all students to learn calculus? If not, where would you set the bar for “college and career ready”? 
  4. You say that it’s hard to judge the “rigor” of standards. OK. So do you think other standards are more rigorous than the Common Core? Ohio, for example, is having a debate about whether it should repeal the Common Core and deploy the old Massachusetts standards instead. Do
  5. ...
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Marc Schare

Marc Schare is the Vice President of the Worthington City Schools Board of Education (in suburban Columbus), now serving his ninth year.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Marc Schare testified before the Ohio House of Representatives’ Rules and Reference Committee on August 26, 2014, opposing House Bill 597 which would repeal Ohio’s New Learning Standards. The following is from his written testimony before the committee.

We in Worthington are confused by this legislation. Perplexed really. Baffled might be the right word.

You see, the State told us back in 2009 that our “Excellent” rankings didn’t mean much anymore because Ohio’s academic content standards and cut scores were too low and that too many kids statewide were having to take high school all over again once they got to college. Fair enough, so Ohio responsibly adopted new academic content standards and recommended that we develop a curriculum based on those standards. For the next three years, teams of teachers representing over 20% of our total teaching staff met in small groups to re-write Worthington’s local curriculum. It was an enormous undertaking. The teams would methodically, standard by standard, define learning targets, compile lists of resources, determine best practices and associated professional development on a subject by subject, grade by grade basis. The result of this effort according to preliminary reports from ODE is that Worthington students using our new curriculum performed at their highest level in years.

While all this was going on, our Information Technology department was preparing to implement the...

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Released on August 20, The Condition of College & Career Readiness examines the college readiness of the high school class of 2014 using ACT test scores and College Readiness Benchmarks. Approximately 1.85 million students, or 57 percent of all American graduates, took the ACT in 2014—an astounding 18 percent increase since 2010. Ohio students posted an average composite score of 22—relatively unchanged from previous years and one point above the national average. More interesting are the College Readiness Benchmarks, which indicate the chance of a student earning a B or higher in a college course in English composition, Algebra, biology, or social science. The overall report provides this data for the nation, but individual state level data is also available (Ohio’s data). It’s not a pretty picture. Of the 72 percent of Ohio’s 2014 graduating seniors who took the ACT, only one in three (32 percent) scored high enough to be deemed college ready in all four academic areas. Because not every student took the ACT, only around one in four (23 percent) of Ohio seniors can be considered college ready. If, as expected, PARCC sets its cut scores at the college and career ready threshold, Ohioans will to need to prepare themselves for the challenge that awaits as we work to make sure that more students have the skills they need to be successful on whichever path they choose after high school. Check out the report for a more detailed look at the persisting national achievement gap, top...

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It’s nearly school report card time in Ohio. One thing to watch for when examining school performance is whether there are conflicting ratings. For the 2013-14 school year, schools will receive ratings along up to ten dimensions of performance, though no overall letter grade. For example, one might observe a school that receives an “F” on the state’s performance index but at the same time, also receives an “A” on the state’s value-added rating. Or vice-versa. How in the world can this happen?

Keep in mind that these two key ratings—a school’s performance index and value-added—are not the same. The performance index is an indicator of raw student achievement, weighted across a continuum of achievement levels. Value-added, on the other hand, is a statistical estimate of a school’s impact on student progress—expressed as learning gains—over time.[1] Although both measures are based on state test scores, they are different creatures: Achievement tells us more about how students perform; value-added provides evidence on how a school performs (i.e., the productivity of the school staff).

Hence, to understand the quality of a school, we really need both measures. Outside observers—parents, taxpayers, and others—should know whether a school’s students, on average, possess literacy and numeracy skills—that’s achievement. And they should know whether a school is contributing to learning over time—that’s progress.

Now back to the question of mixed ratings. How many schools in Ohio have conflicting results, particularly of the low-achievement but high-progress variety?[2]...

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photo credit: DonkeyHotey via photopin cc

It’s too soon to guess TIME Magazine’s person of the year, but a clear favorite has emerged for Common Core person of the year: the man, woman, or group that has done the most to advance the adoption and implementation of Common Core State Standards in the U.S. 

Ladies and gentleman, for meritorious service to further the cause of rigorous academic standards and educational excellence, please put your hands together for the governor of the great state of Louisiana, Common Core Man of the Year, Bobby Jindal!”

Jindal, as I’m sure you know, is suing the federal government over Common Core. And for this, he deserves enthusiastic cheers and undying gratitude from supporters of the Common Core State Standards. He has thrown into profound jeopardy the most effective talking point that their opponents have: that the feds forced national standards down the states’ throats and that Uncle Sam is illegally dictating what schools will teach. If this were true, any number of states, districts, or other stakeholders would have been in court ages ago. But they haven’t. The blunt fact of the matter is that this is powerful rhetoric atop an extremely weak legal case—like posting a “beware of dog” sign on your home when you own a beagle puppy.

Jindal’s suit alleges that the Department of Education forced adoption of Common Core through its Race to the Top program, which “required” states to “enter...

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