Standards, Testing, & Accountability

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....



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...

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...

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...

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....

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?

All Over the Map coverParents, be aware: The “proficient” designation
that your child received on her state science test may not signify much. This
new report from Change the Equation (a STEM-advocacy outfit) and the American
Institutes for Research evaluates the proficiency cut scores of thirty-seven
states’ eighth-grade-science assessments, comparing their rigor to that of the
2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The upshot? Fifteen states
set their bars for proficiency below NAEP’s basic
designation. Virginia is the worst of the lot—setting its cut scores far below
the rest of the pack—and repaying itself with a 91 percent proficiency rate on
its state exam. Only four states (New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts,
and Louisiana) expect their students to be at or above NAEP’s "proficient"
threshold. (Feeling a bit of déjà vu? This report is a lot like Fordham’s own Proficiency
Illusion
blockbuster from 2007, in which we drew similar conclusions
about reading and math.) A word on the forthcoming common science standards: This
work is necessary—and hugely important. But, as we are reminded time and again,
it is not sufficient. A failure to link quality standards to rigorous assessments
with balanced cut scores is akin to swiping the legs of any common science-standards
initiative, just as it’s learning to walk.

...

“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.

The Accountability Plateau coverSo 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
today
, 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...

“Believing we can improve schooling with more tests,” Robert
Schaeffer of FairTest once argued, “is like believing you can make
yourself grow taller by measuring your height.”

It’s a great line. Such statements are the seductive battle cries of
the anti-standards and anti-assessment crowd. But is there any reason
behind this kind of rhetoric?

Parents rarely complain that their young babies are being weighed
and measured too much—even though it can create an extra burden in an
often stressful time in their lives. That’s not because parents naively
believe these basic tests will make their babies grow faster or
taller, but rather because they trust that their doctor will use the
data from these and other tests to flag early problems and develop
individualized plans to help their children thrive.

Of course, education assessments—particularly end-of-year summative
assessments—are far more complicated than scales. But the purpose of
tests in school is no different: to flag problems early and often so
that they can be addressed before they become lifelong issues.

In education, like in medicine, there are unintended consequences to
relying on a limited number of tests in a narrow range of subjects.
According to a report
released by Common Core last week, 76 percent of teachers feel that
critical subjects like science, history, and art are being “crowded out
by extra attention being paid to math and language arts,” and 93
...

The number
of districts rated excellent in Ohio has risen dramatically over the past
several years, from 85 in the 2002-2003 school year to 352 in the 2010-11
school year (almost 60 percent of all districts in the state). Are students
performing at higher levels than ever before, or are there other factors
contributing to the large increase in excellent ratings? The authors of Grading on Curve: The Illusion of Excellence
in Ohio’s Schools
would argue the latter.

The report
by the Ohio Association for Gifted Children points to the complexity of Ohio’s
accountability system as well as low cut scores on Ohio’s assessment tests for
the rise in the number of excellent districts. For example, achievement
standards only require that 75 percent of students assessed at various grade
levels be proficient in order for that indicator to be met. Therefore, if 75
percent of third graders score at a proficient level in math, the district
meets the third grade indicator even though 25 percent of students are not
proficient. Districts can also get a “bump” up to excellent for making above
expected gains in value-added, thus leading to further inflation.

The report
also points to NAEP results as further evidence that Ohio’s performance
standards are too low. Forty-two percent of Ohio’s fourth graders scored at the
accelerated level in reading, compared to the NAEP results that indicate only...

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