Standards, Testing, & Accountability

 Critics
of “bubble tests” rejoice! The campaign against the use of multiple choice
questions in state tests may finally be turning the tide. But, on the eve of
this victory, it’s worth pausing to ask: is this actually a good thing for
those of us who care about smart, efficient, and effective accountability
systems?

Details continue to trickle in about the PARCC
and SMARTER Balanced assessment consortia plans for their summative ELA and
math assessments. Catherine Gewertz has dug into the RFPs for both consortia
and shared some of her findings in an article published in Education Week yesterday. There’s a lot of
interesting information, including the fact that both consortia appear to be
moving away from multiple choice questions in their test designs. Gewertz
explains:

Documents
issued by the two groups of states that are designing the tests show that they
seek to harness the power of computers in new ways and assess skills that
multiple-choice tests cannot…

While the plans offer few details about how
the new items will differ, or why it’s necessary to abandon multiple choice
questions entirely, people across the education world will no doubt celebrate
the demise of the multiple choice question.

Multiple choice items are, after all, the
assessment items everyone loves to hate. Critics on all sides of the education
debate deride “bubble tests” as the enemy of genuine learning and believe that
...

Hearken back to junior high
and high school for a moment.  What “historical documents” were you taught
in social studies and American history classes?  The U.S. Constitution?
Your state’s constitution?  What about the Declaration of Independence or
the Federalist Papers?  The Northwest Ordinance (especially if you grew up
in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota)?

My entire K-12 education
was in Ohio public schools.  When it came to history, I didn’t take any
electives or special courses beyond whatever was required for me to earn a
diploma.  Yet, I was taught all of these important historical texts,
multiple times, from seventh grade through twelfth.  So I was surprised to
see bills moving through the Ohio legislature that would require
schools to teach what I thought were standard fare for Ohio’s students. In
fact, at first blush it seemed implausible to me that many schools weren’t
already doing so.

My husband, also an Ohio
public school alum (from a quote-unquote better district than I attended), had
a different reaction when I told him about the legislation. He guessed at least
two-thirds of students learn virtually nothing about the Federalist Papers in
high school. And he said he wasn’t taught anything about the Ohio Constitution
in K-12.  Huh, maybe there ought to be a law.

This issue isn’t a new one
for Fordham.  The bill’s sponsor in the Ohio House, Rep....

Just over a year ago, Ohio won $400 million in Race to the
Top grant dollars and promised to implement a number of significant reform
programs. The U.S. Department of Education just released a progress report
for the Buckeye State detailing how it has fared in year one, as well as the
work that remains.

First, it might be helpful to revisit the major commitments
Ohio made. They were to:

  • Increase the high school graduation rate by 0.5
    percent per year with an eventual goal of an 88 percent graduation rate. Right now
    only 84.3 percent graduate from Ohio’s high schools.
  • Reduce the graduation rate gap between white and
    minority students by 50 percent. The current gap is 16 percentage points.
  • Reduce the performance gap between Ohio students
    and some of the nation’s highest performers like Massachusetts.
  • Double college enrollment for Ohioans under the
    age of 19. Ohio ranks 35th in terms of adults with a two-year degree
    of higher.
  • Adopt and implement high-quality academic
    standards aligned assessments.
  • Ensure great principals and teachers in every
    school (however that’s measured).

Ohio has more than 600 school district, 3,500 district schools
and over 300 charter schools so it had its work cut out for it when it applied
for RttT dollars and then won. The list of goals stated above is no easy
task.  So how is Ohio doing...

iPod Sad Face
Photo by Joel Washing

Two months ago, Apple celebrated the 10th anniversary of the
release of the iPod. Sunday, we will “celebrate” the 10th birthday of NCLB.

The iPod is universally seen as a game changer—something
that not only transformed the way we listen to music, but that changed the
music industry itself.

Few would say the same about the transformative power of
NCLB.

Yet, what if the iPod hadn’t evolved in the ten years since
its initial release? What if, after Steve Jobs released the 2001 version—the
first-generation iPod—the different divisions at Apple couldn’t come to
agreement about how it should evolve?

As one tech-expert explained:

[The iPod] debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only,
FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and
5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows
version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod
debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If
Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in
2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop.

The transformative power of the iPod was unleashed not by
its...



chocolate-covered face photo

Couldn't swear off chocolate--but maybe
this implementation thing will stick.
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

Forget swearing off sweets or hitting the gym; the New
Year’s resolution trending among education policymakers seems to be “getting
tough on implementation.” First, Arne Duncan ruined Hawaii’s holidays with a
stern Christmas card: The state is now on “high-risk status,” with access to
its remaining Race to the Top grant money severely limited until it stops dawdling
and starts implementing promised reforms. This from a federal education
department that has so far accommodated slow-moving states and approved dozens
of RTTT-application amendments. Perhaps energized (or concerned) by Duncan’s
newfound nerve, New York’s state commissioner of education, John King, is also
hopping on the “hard on implementation” wagon. This week, the Empire State’s commish announced that he’s withholding $60 million from Gotham’s SIG funding
after negotiations
broke down between the district and the union
over—what else?—teacher evaluations. (He’s cutting off the SIG spigot for nine other districts around
the state, too.) While the Big Apple edu-leaders seem
unconcerned
(what’s $60 million to a district with a $24 billion operating
budget?), Gadfly is still enthusiastic that officials are holding people’s feet
to the fire for...



clown fish in anemone photo

Like clown fish and anemone, teacher evals
and merit pay need each other.
Photo by Rob

Teacher evaluations are particularly contentious of late, as
educators in New York and Hawaii can testify
, which is why it’s worth
remembering what can happen when they’re done right. Sam Dillon provided a
heartening reminder in his New York Times
feature on merit pay last weekend, highlighting D.C.’s pioneering IMPACTplus
system. Critics of these initiatives point to studies finding that padding star
teachers’ paychecks doesn’t
boost student achievement
; the best educators were working hard to begin
with, and a few extra dollars won’t squeeze more from them. Dillon’s interviews
with DCPS teachers who received bonuses, however—which can be as high as
$25,000—reveal the potential of meaningful performance-based pay to bring about
systemic change. In a profession with brutal turnover, getting talented young
professionals into classrooms may be less important than keeping them there. D.C.
is creating
a competitive marketplace
for top teachers in the region, and making a
strong case to keep them in the capital. But no merit-pay system is possible
without a credible (and rigorous) approach to teacher evaluation, which is why
getting that right is...

Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit cover
Building off their May 2011 conference of the same name,
this volume, edited by American Enterprise Institute scholars Rick Hess and
Andrew Kelly, offers a one-stop-shop for expert views on the federal role in
education over the past fifty years. The book (which includes a chapter from
our own Chester Finn) tackles topics ranging from federal efforts at promoting
equity to the courts’ role in education. While the tome doesn't much aim to
resolve the debate about the federal role, it does inject this timely issue
with a healthy dose of perspective, offering a nuanced picture of the feds'
capabilities. Particularly relevant, the chapter on the feds’ role in research
(which has emerged
as a hot topic in recent months
)—written by Jane Hannaway and Mark
Schneider—offers a keen take on how the feds have tried to balance rigor,
relevance, and politics as they pursue education research. Similarly compelling
is the chapter on Uncle Sam’s investment in innovation, where discussions of
RTTT and i3 feature prominently. Despite the book’s historic grounding, the
content is in no way stale. Quite the contrary, the writing is fresh and
informed—and marks an essential read for any eduwonk wishing to engage more
productively in this timely conversation.

Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly, ed. Carrots, Sticks, and the...

A
few weeks ago, Diane Ravitch posted a challenge on Twitter:

“I
challenge anyone who supports the current testing regime to take the 12th grade
test for graduation and release the results to the media.”

The
tweet was a response to a post published by Valerie Strauss in early December that
told the story of a prominent and, by all accounts, very successful Florida school board
member who took a state ELA and math test and publicized his results. (He
earned 17 percent in math, 62 percent in reading.) His experience caused him to
question to validity of using tests as part of a statewide accountability
system. He said:

“It
makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s
entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world
functioning…I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test]
in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals
who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

Strauss
agreed and concluded:

“There
you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven
education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective
and aren’t really accountable.”

The
post and Ravitch’s challenge set off a firestorm of anti-testing vitriol. This
was proof, people argued, that “corporate-driven” standards- and
accountability-driven reforms should be abandoned.

Intrigued,
...

If you’re to believe the rhetoric around Common Core, these new college- and career-ready standards are poised to usher in major education changes—changes that will help better prepare American students for the rigors of university coursework and the workplace.

On the other hand, if you’re to read individual states’ own descriptions of the differences between the Common Core and existing ELA and math standards, the changes seem far less dramatic.

Since they have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), nearly every state has undertaken some kind of review that compared existing ELA and math standards to the CCSS. And, almost without exception, these comparisons found near-perfect alignment between the CCSS and state ELA and math standards.

A Tennessee’s curriculum and assessment “crosswalk,” for example, found that “97 percent of the CCSS ELA standards have a match in Tennessee’s ELA standards, with 90 percent being rated an excellent or good match.” On the math side, Tennessee found that there are “no grade-level difference[s] in Kindergarten and only a 1 percent difference in 1st grade…” Similar comparisons by state departments of education around the country have found similar levels of alignment. (This despite the fact that our own analysis of state ELA and math standards found significant differences between a majority of state standards and the CCSS.)

There are several problems with these crosswalks and their findings.

For starters, these crosswalk comparisons too often lose the forest for the trees, focusing on narrow and sometimes...

“Consequential accountability,” à la No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes state testing systems that preceded it, corresponded with a significant one-time boost in student achievement, particularly in primary and middle school math. Like the meteor that led to the decline of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, results-based accountability appears to have shocked the education system. But its effect seems to be fading now, as earlier gains are maintained but not built upon. If we are to get another big jump in academic achievement, we’re going to need another shock to the system—another meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system.

So argues Mark Schneider, a scholar, analyst, and friend whom we once affectionately (and appropriately) named “Stat stud.” Schneider, a political scientist, served as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005 to 2008, and is now affiliated with the American Institutes for Research and the American Enterprise Institute. In a Fordham-commissioned analysis released yesterday, he digs into twenty years of trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), aka the “Nation’s Report Card.”

We originally asked Schneider to investigate the achievement record of the great state of Texas. At the time—it feels like just yesterday—Rick Perry was riding high in the polls, making an issue of education, and taking flak from Secretary Arne Duncan for running an inadequate school system. We wondered: Was Duncan right to feel “...

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