Standards, Testing, & Accountability

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,
...

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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...

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“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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After more than ten years under NCLB, that law’s legacy continues to be fiercely contested. This analysis of NAEP scores—focusing on Texas and on the entire nation—by former NCES commissioner Mark Schneider finds that solid gains in math achievement coincided with the advent of "consequential accountability," first in the trailblazing Lone Star State and a few other pioneer states, then across the land with the implementation of NCLB. But Schneider warns that the recent plateau in Texas math scores may foreshadow a coming stagnation in the country’s performance. Has the testing-and-accountability movement as we know it run out of steam? How else might we rekindle our nation’s education progress?

Download the analysis to find out, and be sure to watch the replay of Fordham's January 5 discussion of the paper and consequential accountability in general, "Has the Accountability Movement Run Its Course?"

The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.

From where I sit, the basic strategies
aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and
constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the
K-12 system as we know it.

This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.

The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty real, but largely beyond the reach of public
policy. No, here I refer to obstacles that competent leaders and bold policymakers
could reduce or eradicate if they were serious.

How much difference would that really make? It’s possible,
of course, that we’re pursuing the wrong core strategies....

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magnifying glass photo

Look a little bit closer.
Photo by Jen and a camera

Seattle’s recently released student-achievement
results were “very, very alarming,” according to Michael Tolley, one of Seattle
Public Schools’s leaders. He’s right, of course. For example, the city found that black youngsters who do not speak
English in the home (mostly immigrants and refugees) tested higher than those
blacks who do speak English at home
(and are, presumably, U.S.-born)—by as much as 26 percentage points in math
and 18 percentage points in reading. These results invite many questions, but
here’s one tangible takeaway: Our data-reporting subgroups may be cut too crudely.
Since 1990, blacks have ticked thirty-six points higher on NAEP’s fourth-grade
math assessment (compared to whites’ twenty-nine point increase). This slow narrowing
of the achievement gap is present across fourth- and eighth-grade math and
reading. Yet Seattle’s data call into question how these gains are being made.
Are descendants of slaves making the same progress as first-generation African
immigrants? Maybe, maybe not. To better target services to our neediest
children, we’ll need more of these higher resolution data. Kudos to Seattle for
starting the trend. Other districts with large African and Caribbean immigrant
populations, like Montgomery County, Maryland, would...

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Creating Opportunity Schools coverThrough this report (prepared by Public Impact),
The Mind Trust proposes a dramatic transformation of public education in
Indianapolis, akin to the structural changes that have taken place in New
Orleans and New York City. It observes that great schools across the country
share a set of core conditions that enable them to help all students achieve.
Among these core conditions are the freedom to build and manage their own
teams, refocus resources to meet actual student needs, hold schools accountable
for their results(and close those that don’t perform), and create a system of
school choice that empowers parents to find schools that they want their
children to attend. To create success in the public schools of Indianapolis
(IPS), the Mind Trust proposes these bold moves: shift funding from the central
office to schools; give high-performing schools autonomy over staffing,
budgets, and curriculum; provide parents with more good choices; unite all
public schools under a new banner of quality called Opportunity Schools; and
allow the mayor and the City-County Council to appoint the IPS school board,. We
at Fordham are cheering for the Mind Trust and its reform-minded allies. Not
only will their success or failure resonate in Indiana but also across the
Midwest and probably beyond.

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s
Flypaper...

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Coordinated
social-service programs are gaining steam—after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem
Children’s Zone, think Obama’s new Promise
Neighborhoods
and the AFT’s proposed
initiative in rural West Virginia
. These “cradle-to-career” partnerships link
myriad groups and programs in order to provide wraparound services (from
prenatal care run by a neighborhood clinic to mentoring coordinated through the
local United Way chapter). But questions of accountability loom large. (As the
saying goes, when everyone is accountable, no one is.) This brief from Ed
Sector profiles the Strive Partnership of Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky, a
program that does a pretty good job of managing this shared accountability, and
distills recommendations for others looking to initiate similar wraparound-service
partnerships. To ensure quality, the brief states, programs of this kind must
have metrics and performance targets in place (for each program partner as well
as the whole) and a system for collecting and reporting data. (Other things,
like strong and sustained leadership, are also helpful.) Most importantly, there
must be a ringleader—an “intermediary organization” charged with overseeing the
whole program, tracking the efficacy of each of the program’s components, and
defunding those that don’t work. In the case of the Cincinnati-Northern
Kentucky initiative, the Strive Partnership (itself a professionally staffed
organization) serves that purpose. As more and more cities implement their own
versions of “strive partnerships” and “promise neighborhoods,” these questions
of accountability will mushroom. Ed Sector...

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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 a bill
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....

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This morning we’re releasing a new analysis
of NAEP scores by Mark Schneider, former NCES commissioner, with some
important implications for both NCLB’s legacy and the future of
accountability-style education reform. Schneider
finds that solid gains in math achievement coincided with the advent of
“consequential accountability,” first in the trailblazing Lone Star
State and a few other pioneer states, then across the land with the
implementation of NCLB. But Schneider also warns that the recent plateau
in Texas math scores may foreshadow a coming stagnation in the
country’s performance.

Download
the paper to learn more and be sure to register for Fordham’s January 5
discussion of the paper, and consequential accountability in general, “Has the Accountability Movement Run Its Course?

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