Standards, Testing & Accountability

Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina, joined the presidential race this week. He’s currently competing against eight other Republicans for the party’s nomination—a number that promises to grow as the year goes on. He’s also the subject of the thirteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Graham has served in the Senate since 2003. Before that, he was a four-term representative in the House and served one term in the state legislature. This, however, is his first time running for the White House. Over his long political tenure, he’s said much about education. Here are some of his views:

1. Common Core (2014): “The Obama administration has effectively bribed and coerced states into adopting Common Core....Blanket education standards should not be a prerequisite for federal funding. In order to have a competitive application for some federal grants and flexibility waivers, states have to adopt Common Core. This is simply not the way the Obama administration should be handling education policy.” February 2014.

2. Common Core (2013): “What's Common Core?...I'll address it. I don't know what it is. Sounds like a bad idea. I'll tell my staff, and I'll try...

On May 18, another bill aimed at repealing Common Core in Ohio was introduced. House Bill 212 is far more troublesome than its many predecessors, mainly because it aims to do far more than repeal Common Core. Legislators should put this bill out to pasture, and here’s why.

The war on assessments

HB 212’s worst offense is that it declares war on a rigorous assessment system. First, the bill’s text calls for the adoption of Massachusetts’s pre-Common Core standards. (We've talked before about why Massachusetts decided to move away from its previous standards in favor of Common Core, and questioned why Ohio would want to pick up another state’s standards when that state has already decided they were no longer good enough.) In an effort to align standards with assessments, HB 212 also calls for the use of Massachusetts’s pre-Common Core tests—which is logical in this circumstance and definitely not the worst option as far as tests go. (This past year, Massachusetts allowed districts to choose between the state test, MCAS, and PARCC). Unfortunately, HB 212 also allows for the adoption of another test—the state assessments administered in Iowa prior to 2010. Currently, Iowa is...

When it comes to the raucous debate over standardized testing, cooler heads might just prevail. In a recent move, PARCC announced changes to its exams starting in 2015–16. PARCC is a consortium of states working to design assessments aligned to the Common Core standards in math and English language arts; Ohio and ten other states administered PARCC for the first time in the 2014–15 school year. Dr. Richard A. Ross, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction, sits on its governing board.

On May 20, the governing board voted in favor of two key changes that should alleviate some of the logistical burdens schools faced when administering these exams: eliminating one of the two “testing windows” and reducing the amount of testing time by roughly ninety minutes in all tested grades.

Collapsing two testing windows into one

The spring 2015 testing window for PARCC extended from mid-February to mid-May. That’s a long time. Of course, schools were not required to administer exams throughout the full testing window—they could use as few or as many of the days within the window as they needed. But for students, parents, and educators, the three-month window probably made “testing season” feel unusually long...

George Pataki, the former three-term governor of New York, announced today that he’s running for president. He’s the eighth Republican to do so and the second in two days (Rick Santorum declared yesterday). He’s also the subject of the eleventh installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo back in 1994 to win the governorship of the Empire State, an office he held until 2006. In fact, he’s never lost an election. In 1982, he won the mayoral seat in Peekskill, NY. He was elected to the state assembly two years later, and to the state senate in 1992. He’s had a long, successful career—so long that if he wins in 2016, he’ll be the oldest American president in history. And during that time, he’s formed some strong opinions about education:

1. Common Core: “I oppose Common Core. I think it's a terrible idea.”...

  • Like raucous pep rallies, autumn school-supply binges, and despising every page of Ethan Frome, there’s something comfortingly banal about multiple choice tests. But there have always been doubts about the benefits of having kids choose between four potential antonyms for “circumscribe.” As a corrective, the Common Core-aligned PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests feature sections devoted to “performance tasks”—longer, in-depth assignments designed to evaluate strategic and critical thinking. The new approach combines a short classroom activity with complex individual components, such as argumentative essays or multi-step math problems. While advocates claim that the exercises give a fuller picture of students’ mastery over the material, some teachers lament lost instructional time and fret about the difficulties of implementation. We’ll know which side was right later this year, when Fordham releases its review of the next-generation assessments; until then, it’s usually safe to fill in “All of the above.”
  • In life, unlike in multiple choice exams, the correct answer isn’t always presented as part of a menu of options. You either know the quadratic formula or you don’t; either you can make a persuasive argument or you can’t. It is therefore critical to teach kids valuable skills for their future lives, and
  • ...

Achieve has spent a decade relentlessly tracking and reporting on states’ progress in adopting “college- and career-ready” (CCR) policies and practices across multiple fronts. Sometimes we’ve found their reports too rosy, or at least too credulous, with a tendency to credit state assertions that they’re doing something rather than looking under the surface to see whether it’s really happening.

This year’s report is more solid, more fact-based—and more worrying. Consider, for example, its list of fourteen states that “still do not have any form of statewide graduation requirements that require or even suggest (as states with opt-in CCR courses of study do) that students take particular courses (or the content) so that they can graduate college and career ready.”

Pretty grim, no, this deep into the era of standards-based reform and mindful of our multi-year fixation on everybody emerging from the K–12 system ready for something respectable after high school?

Also worrying: Only thirteen states even collect district-level course requirements for high school graduation, and just three make public “the number of credits by subject area by district” required for graduation.

And this: “35 states use end-of-course exams [for some high-school subjects] to help ensure rigor and consistency statewide. However,...

Amid way too much talk about testing and the Common Core, not enough attention is being paid to what parents will actually learn about their children’s achievement when results are finally released from the recent round of state assessments (most of which assert that they’re “aligned” with the Common Core).

Ever since states adopted more rigorous standards—and the two assessment consortia began to develop next-generation tests that will faithfully gauge pupil performance in relation to those standards—there’s been vast anxiety about the bad news that’s apt to emerge. How will people react when informed that their kids aren’t doing nearly as well academically as the previous standards-and-testing regime had led them to believe? Will more parents “opt out” of testing? Will the political backlash cause more states to repudiate the Common Core, change tests yet again, or lower the “cut scores”?

We know the Common Core standards are more challenging than what preceded them in most places. That was the point. We know that the new assessments—at least those custom-built by PARCC and Smarter Balanced—are supposed to probe deeper and expect more. We understand that this reboot of America’s academic expectations is indeed like moving the goal posts. There’s ample...

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we’ve understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. They describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools. Which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum, assessment, and accountability. It’s far better to have a desirable destination than an unworthy one—better to aspire to reach the mountains than the recycling plant—but standards alone won’t get you there.

Plenty of educators understand this, but they often lack access to suitable vehicles by which to make the journey. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited implementation challenge for states, districts, and schools. It’s also why “access to high-quality, standards-aligned curricular resources” comes up in nearly every discussion of the implementation challenges that teachers, schools, and districts face as they ramp up to meet the content and rigor demands of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

This near-universal need for properly aligned curricula and curricular materials is also why so many publishers rushed to slap shiny “CCSS-aligned!” stickers on their products, regardless of how much those products changed...

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we have understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. Standards describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools, which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum decisions, assessments, and accountability. Educators intuitively understand this, but not all policy makers and pundits appear to. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited challenge for states, districts, and schools implementing the Common Core.

Yet five years into that implementation, teachers still report scrambling to find high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials. Despite publishers’ claims, there is a dearth of programs that are truly aligned to the demands of the Common Core for content and rigor. Fixing America’s curriculum problem is no small challenge.

In Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum, Fordham analyzes New York State’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, built from scratch and made available online for all to use for free. How solid is this product? Is it well aligned to the Common Core? Is it teachable?

Here’s what we...

Editor's note: This post has been updated to include the entirety of "Knowledge is literacy."

In his best-selling book In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria worried that in the era of technology and globalization, "an open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere." Defenders like Zakaria have argued that a liberal education is still the best preparation for a broad and unpredictable range of careers.

I agree, but I'd like to propose that we start by restoring the liberal arts tradition to where it can really do the most good: elementary school. A K–5 version of a liberal arts education would go a long way toward solving one of the most stubborn problems we face in American education: How to raise kids who love to read and are pretty good at it.

To be educated in the liberal arts is to have a broad grasp of literature, art, music, history, and the sciences. That's also a fair description of what it takes to be a good reader. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, has driven this point home with exceptional clarity in his outstanding new book Raising...

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