Standards, Testing & Accountability

Review: The Nation's Report Card: History 2010

Gadfly's voice is hoarse from proclamations that history education is being tossed aside in the NCLB-fueled fervor over reading and math. But this week brings no relief for his vocal cords. Instead, it brought release of the 2010 Nation's Report Card for U.S. history, and the statistics are scream-worthy, if unsurprising. Proficiency rates in history come in at 20 percent or less in fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades?far lower than for any other subject NAEP assesses. While a few positive data points can be gleaned (since 1994, blacks and Hispanics have significantly narrowed the achievement gap, for example), the overall results still remind us of the serious shortcomings in how we approach history education in this land. In the vast majority of states, history standards are pitiable and incentives to take this subject seriously are nonexistent. (While all states are federally mandated to test ELA and math, only eight assess history or social studies at both the elementary and secondary levels.) But please don't shoot or even pooh-pooh the messenger, for the NAEP history assessment is a fair gauge based on an excellent framework that is serious about real historical content and reasoning. (That's what our reviewers found recently.)

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We're not opposed to criticism here at the Fordham Institute. In fact, we welcome healthy dialogue involving more than just one perspective on a given issue or topic. The release of Fordham's new Standards Central online clearinghouse, a one-stop-shop for all of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's recent reviews of state, national, and international curriculum and testing standards, will inevitably attract the condemnation of critics opposed to the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI).

They will be quick to point out how (with Fordham's own site!) one can identify the outstanding ELA and math standards in California, D.C., and Indiana that have all been done away with thanks to their decisions to adopt the Common Core. At no point, however, have we denied the fact that some states were home to some top-rate standards prior to implementing those of the Common Core (if you don't believe me, see the sentence before this one).

But in order to actually believe that the CCSSI is a detriment for that reason, one must either ignorantly deny or consciously ignore some pretty compelling evidence. While the three states mentioned above did have better ELA standards than those of the Common Core, 32 states that adopted the Common Core ELA standards were previously operating under significantly inferior standards. The same holds true for math, where 32 states have considerably improved their standards through Common Core implementation. How can you argue with those numbers?

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Diane Ravitch's New York Times op-ed seems to have stuck in the craw of many a reformer, including Arne Duncan himself. What really burned people up was Ravitch's "straw man" arguments: that reformers say poverty doesn't matter, or only care about gains in student achievement. ?No serious reformer says accountability should just be based on test scores. We all favor multiple measures," Jon Schnur* complained to Jonathan Alter last week. [quote]

Please. Remember the old adage, watch what we do, not what we say? The No Child Left Behind act is still the law of the land, and it most definitely rests on the principle that poverty is "no excuse" for low achievement. And it absolutely punishes schools for bad test scores alone. Diane is on firm ground when she writes:

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.

Rather than get defensive at Diane's defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends that education reform can achieve. If not 100 percent proficiency,** then what?

Try this exercise. This fall, about 1 million poor children will enroll in Kindergarten in the U.S. The vast majority of them live in single-parent families headed...

Liam Julian

This analysis by Kevin Carey is flawed. He criticizes Diane Ravitch's recent New York Times op-ed, in which?he?sees a contradiction?between?the author's?censure of the 100-percent proficiency crowd, those who "believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement,? and her reproof of President Obama for publicly praising a school with a 97 percent graduation rate but whose high school students' ?ACT scores were far below the state average? and a mere 21 percent of whose? middle school students tested proficient or advanced in math. As Carey puts it:

Got that? If you write policies based on test score proficiency rates and insist that proficiency is the only reasonable way to judge success, even in schools beset by poverty, then you're cruel, utopian, and out to destroy public education. If, on the other hand, you do as President Obama did and praise a school beset by poverty despite its low proficiency rates, because it scores well on other measures, like graduation rates, college going rates, and annual growth on state tests, then you're peddling the myth of miracle schools as part of a campaign to destroy public education.

One sees what he's getting at. Ravitch has recently?insinuated her name into the papers in part by using fiery, scornful language to argue that education ?reformers,? with their penchant for testing, are obliterating America's system of public schools, which,?she always misleadingly implies and occasionally incorrectly adduces, were previously wonderful, enlightening places. And yet when?Ravitch wishes to make her...

Liam Julian

Diane Ravitch's latest piece in the New York Times contains some fine, necessary instruction to which many in the education-policy world might listen: stop creating education miracles. One can be wary of Ravitch's late-period work, suspicious of her use of data and facts, and still believe her correct when she writes that ?the news media and the public should respond with skepticism to any claims of miraculous transformation.? Ravitch gives several examples of miracles that weren't, and included in the list is Chicago's Urban Prep, which, in February, announced that for a second year in a row, all its seniors had been accepted to a four-year college. I blogged about the occurrence, and wrote then that ?as usual? I was ?skeptical?: ?I wonder, for instance, if all the seniors are actually prepared to succeed in college (King told the Tribune that this year's graduating class had an average ACT score of 17.5, which ain't great); to what sort of four-year colleges these young men were accepted; and whether the school's college-for-all push is necessarily in the best interests of its students.? Turns out the skepticism was warranted. Only 17 percent of Urban Prep students passed state tests. All the school's graduates may be headed to campus. It seems indisputable that most shouldn't be.

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For the last couple of years?ever since the nation's governors and state superintendents started working on common academic standards in reading and math?conservative education analysts have engaged in a spirited but polite debate about the wisdom of this development. The last month has seen the discourse turn nastier, with charges and counter-charges, name-calling, and quasi-apocalyptic warnings about federal bureaucrats wanting to ?control your children's minds.? Particularly at issue in this latest round of recriminations is Uncle Sam's role in all of this; are we witnessing a federal take-over of our schools? A push for a federally-controlled national curriculum for all public schools? [quote]

Some of these concerns are not entirely unfounded; the Obama Administration and other supporters of the move to ?common? national standards (my organization among them) have made some unforced errors that have helped to fuel the paranoia. But for conservatives worried about federal interference in our schools, this debate is mostly a sideshow. What should really keep them up at night are the myriad proposals for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act that would push Washington's hand ever deeper into the day-to-day operations of America's schools?proposals that are coming from both sides of the political aisle.

Before diving into the No Child Left Behind debate, let's mitigate some key concerns about a ?national curriculum? with a review of the facts.

The effort to get states to agree to common standards started well before the 2008 election, with the Council...

Last year, many marveled at how quickly states moved to adopt the Common Core State Standards. Just over a month after the final draft of the standards were released, more than half of the states had adopted them. Barely five months later, 43 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the standards. (Most state standards adoption processes take far longer and incite much more debate.)

Common Core supporters heralded the speedy adoption as a testament to how hard the NGA and CCSSO worked to get input and garner support for the standards. (They did.) But I now wonder whether the lack of debate is more a reflection of the fact that some interested parties may not have known exactly what they signed themselves up for.

Take, for example, the National Education Association. After reading an article published in NEA Today last week, I am certain that Senior Policy Analyst Barbara Kapinus and I are seeing two very different versions of the Common Core standards. In her version, Kapinus explains that implementation of the standards would encourage ?real world? over ?knowledge based? learning.

?Rather than reading drills, we'll ask students to apply reading skills in a broader, ?real world' context.?

So gone are the days of summary book reports ? students will have to analyze the story rather than rehash the plot???

To my eyes, that looks like a gross mischaracterization of how these standards should be implemented. Not least of which because the second...

William Shakespeare penned the famous line in Henry the Sixth: ?The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,? setting off a wave of lawyer jokes that continues 400 years later.

Had Shakespeare had the opportunity to witness the infighting and special interest politics of state textbook adoption processes, he might have found a better target for his ire.

According to the Tampa Tribune, Florida lawmakers have introduced a bill that includes, among other things, a provision that would change the state's textbook adoption process.

The [provision] would replace the state's formal review committees?which include lay citizens, teachers, teacher supervisors and a school board member?with a trio of subject-matter experts appointed by the state education commissioner.

School districts would appoint teachers and content supervisors to rate the practical usability of the texts recommended by the state's experts.

Opponents of the bill??Tea Party? conservatives chief among them?are outraged.

"'We the People' should have a say on what textbooks OUR CHILDREN read," Tea Party activist Shari Krass wrote recently in a letter to Scott.

Krass and activists like her believe some texts used by Florida schools are slanted to favor Islam over Judaism and Christianity?

?"This legislation 'ties our hands'?where we will be restricted in our ability to influence our children's education," she wrote.

Of course, battles over textbook adoption seem, on some level, beside the point. If a state has set clear expectations for what students should know and be able to do,...

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