Standards, Testing & Accountability

Last Friday, in a 6-3 decision, the Washington State Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the state’s voter-approved charter school law, threatening the future of nine new schools with more than 1,200 students.

The ruling was not based on the merits of the law (one of the strongest in the country on accountability). Nor was it based on the words of the state constitution. Instead, the majority cut off all funding from charter schools (the specifics on when and how to be determined by a lower court) by relying on an obscure 1909 judicial interpretation of the words “common schools.” These words are found in the state constitution, but aren’t defined. The majority held that under this century-old definition, the charter school law did not subject those schools to enough “local control,” and therefore is unconstitutional.

The holding hinged on this idea of control—despite the fact that these charters are subject to more accountability than the state’s traditional public schools. Parents choose whether their children will attend. Charters performing in the bottom quartile of all public schools must be closed if they continue to fail. And local school boards are free to sponsor charters. (In...

Most states, including Ohio, have reported large majorities of students as proficient on annual exams over the past decade. This has led the public and parents to believe that most students are doing just fine. Sadly, however, we also know that too many young people require remedial education when they enter college, have great difficulty finding gainful employment, or can’t pass the test to serve our country in the military. A staggering 65 percent of first-year students in Ohio’s two-year colleges require remediation, while the rate is nearly 35 percent in some four-year universities.

A wide chasm—an “honesty gap”—has emerged between how student success in the K–12 realm is portrayed versus how colleges and employers view the skills of those leaving high school. To bridge that gulf, states have adopted higher learning standards, including the Common Core in math and English language arts, as well as rigorous next-generation assessments that are aligned with them. With these new exams in place, the practice of vastly overstating student proficiency is drawing to a close.

Indeed, several states have already unveiled 2014–15 results from Common Core-aligned assessments. Connecticut, a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), recently reported that...

The latest SAT scores are out today, and as I remarked to Nick Anderson at the Washington Post, education reform appears to be hitting a wall in high school.

In truth, we already knew this. The SATs aren’t even the best gauge—not all students take them, and those who do are hardly representative.

But a variety of sources show much the same thing. Twelfth-grade NAEP: Flat. Long-term NAEP for seventeen-year-olds: Flat. ACT scores: Flat. Percentage of college-ready graduates: Flat.

What makes this so disappointing is that NAEP shows respectable gains for younger students, especially in fourth grade and particularly in math. Yet these early gains seem to evaporate as kids get older.

Here’s what that looks like using data from the long-term trend NAEP for three recent student cohorts. Progress at ages nine and thirteen hasn’t translated into progress at age seventeen.

*Note: This shows, for example, that when members of the graduating high school class of 2004 were nine years old (in 1996), they scored 231 on the long-term trend NAEP. Since there was no testing in 2000, I...

Most of the sturm und drang over Common Core has centered on the politics of the standards’ creation and adoption. The bigger problem—much bigger—was always going to be implementation. This new brief from the Education Trust offers a glimpse of how it’s going. Alas, the answer is not very well.

An analysis of middle school classroom assignments finds that most “do not reflect the high-level goals” set by Common Core. This, the report suggests, demonstrates where teachers are in their understanding of the higher standards. Among the sobering data points: A mere 6 percent of the assignment fell into the high range of Education Trust’s analysis framework, and fewer than 40 percent of assignments were aligned with grade-appropriate standards at all. “It’s time for an honest conversation about where we are in implementing the standards,” the report concludes.

Hear, hear—but some important caveats must be noted. The study was conducted at six middle schools spread across two urban districts in two states. Given Education Trust’s focus on equity and the achievement gap, this is not surprising; however, it may not be representative of K–12 education at large. It’s also interesting that more than half of the assignments reviewed came from...

Natalie Wexler

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, twenty-five years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about fifty minutes each day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects—but only by about ten minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills—strategies like “finding the main idea”—rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

Many elementary students spend hours practicing skills-based strategies, reading a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next.

That’s a problem for all students:...

NOTE: This is the Foreword from Fordham’s latest report, released today.

Over the past few years, states across the nation have undertaken big changes in public education—a system reboot, if you will. Policymakers have raised academic standards, toughened up exams, and demanded stronger results from schools. Like other states, Ohio has also put into place a standards and accountability framework with the clear goal of readying every student for college or career when she graduates high school.

It’s no secret that a flood of controversy has accompanied these changes. The Common Core, a set of college-and-career ready standards in math and English language arts, has been the subject of great debate. Yet the Common Core remains in place in Ohio and at least forty other states. States have also adopted next-generation assessments aligned to these standards, though the rollout of the new exams has been rocky. As a result of these transitions, Ohio policymakers have temporarily softened accountability and slowed the implementation of new school report cards.

Given the difficulty of these changes, one may ask why we conducted an overhaul in the first place. Why must states, including Ohio, see through the full and faithful implementation of educational...

Only math and reading teachers in grades 4–8 receive evaluations based on value-added test results. For all other teachers—80 percent of them in Ohio—it’s on to Plan B. To evaluate these teachers, schools are using alternative measures of student growth, which include vendor assessments (commercial, non-state exams) and student learning objectives (SLOs, or teacher-designed goals for learning). But how are these alternative measures being administered? What are their pros and cons? The research on this issue is terribly thin, but a new study from the Institute of Education Sciences casts an intriguing ray of light. Through in-depth interviews, the researchers elicited information on how eight mid-Atlantic districts (unnamed) are implementing alternative measures.

Here are the study’s four key takeaways: First, educators considered vendor assessments (with results analyzed through a form of value-added modelling) to be a fairer and more rigorous evaluation method than SLOs. Second, both alternative measures yielded greater variation in teacher performance than observational methods alone. Third, implementing SLOs in a consistent and rigorous manner was extremely difficult. In fact, the authors write, “All types of stakeholders expressed concern about the potential for some teachers to ‘game the system’ by setting easily attainable...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at InsideSources.

The United States is blessed to have many excellent schools. That includes hundreds of fantastic high schools, such as those that recently received recognition from Newsweek. And our high schools as a whole deserve credit for helping to push America’s graduation rate to all-time highs.

However, there is still an enormous gap between the aspirations of America’s students and the education our public school system is equipped to provide. Put simply, almost all young people today want to go to college (including technical colleges), but only about one-third are graduating with the adequate reading and math skills to be successful once on campus.

Not all of the blame for that chasm can be placed at the doors of our high schools. Too many students are reaching ninth grade who are barely literate and numerate. Yet at a time when student achievement is rising at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, but not in twelfth grade, it’s fair to ask whether high schools are doing all they can to help teenagers make real academic progress while under their care.

Part of the problem is that most of our cities continue to house huge,...

The Education Trust recently responded to two analyses in which I looked at the relationship between  overall and disadvantaged subgroup performance at an individual school level. To summarize their critique, they suggest that even minor differences between overall and subgroup ratings warrant serious concern in an accountability context—possibly including sanctions. For example, a school carrying an overall A rating, but a C rating for disadvantaged students, could be considered to be “growing the achievement gap” and thus in need of an intervention.

Their approach, however, fails to recognize that in school rating systems, a one- or even two-rating deviation may not reflect significant differences in performance. Bear in mind that with growth results, we’re dealing with statistical estimates of learning gains that also include a margin of error. In some cases, schools receive different letter grades, but their underlying growth results aren’t distinguishable from each other.

Consider an example using one school’s overall and subgroup results (Chart 1). As you can see, the range of plausible values for the gains made by all overlap with those made by low-achieving students. As such, we cannot rule out the possibility that the two groups’ gains are actually identical. We...

When Governor Kasich signed the budget on June 30, two significant changes to Ohio’s assessment system became law. First, safe harbor was extended through the 2016 17 school year; second, PARCC ceased to be Ohio's state test. Soon after the ink was dry, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) announced that the state would use tests developed in consultation with AIR for all subjects during the 2015–16 school year. (AIR provided Ohio’s science and social studies assessments in 2014–15 and also developed Ohio’s former tests—the OAA and OGT.)

Throughout the month of July, questions loomed surrounding what these tests would look like, how they would be administered, and when teachers and school leaders would receive preparation resources. Not all of those questions have been answered, but some have. Let’s take a look at what we know so far.

Test features

For many people, one of the most attractive aspects of the new ELA and math assessments is that they are shorter than PARCC tests. While PARCC tests are (depending on subject and grade level) around four or five hours each, the state tests that Ohio students will take this year will last approximately...