Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Every so often educators and reformers think, if we're educating kids for the future, we need to do a better job of adapting our education system to meet the needs of tomorrow. That our education systems needs to, in some sense, ?get with the times? so that we can better serve our students today.

The latest argument to that effect comes from a book (Now You See It) written by Cathy N. Davidson and related blog post from Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times. In her piece, Heffernan argues:

??fully 65 percent of today's grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet?For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it's high time we redesigned American education.?

And so, because today's students will be doing things that we can't imagine, we need to rethink the kinds of work we're assigning today. Including research papers, which Heffernan argues have outlived their usefulness:

Teachers and professors regularly ask students to write papers. Semester after semester, year after year, ?papers? are styled as the highest form of writing. And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.

Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form

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If there is a silver lining to the cheating scandals, it is the increased scrutiny being paid to the testing industry, including the education systems that administer the tests.

In New York, for instance, as Philissa Cramer of Gotham Schools reports, ?mounting anxiety? over recent events has prompted new State Education Commissioner John King to convene a task force to review the state's testing procedures.? (See also Sharon Otterman in the Times.)

Cramer describes it as ?a fast-moving process to tighten test security before it risks following Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey into cheating scandals.?? It better be fast. The Empire State has been just a hare's breath in front a testing scandal for years, up to now, able to bury the problem in the weeds of bureaucratic inefficiencies.? (See my post of yesterday.)

In 2007 the New York Post reported that,

In 2000, for example, numerous teachers told The Post that educators had dumbed down that year's Regents history and geography exams to a laughable extent. Other reports have exposed grading scams - dubious practices, like "scrubbing," in which teachers find ways to get extra points to kids just below a pass/fail threshold. Other times, so many kids failed that results were simply scrapped, as with the math Regents a few years ago.

In January of this year, a Post headline put it bluntly:? ?Teachers Cheat: Inflating Regents Scores to Pass Kids.?

The Wall Street Journal did its...

The more I read RiShawn Biddle ? he of Dropout Nation -- the more I like him (even though I don't know anything about him). ?He wrote a wonderful short essay last week on Bruce Baker of Rutgers, whom he called the ?poor man's Diane Ravitch? (and who, he says, "has devoted so much of his career attempting to prove that spending more money on education? leads to better results.?) ?But today he's taking on a favorite subject of mine, the ?the myth of differences between urban and rural schools.?

Having grown up in rural America (Oregon), lived and worked in urban America (Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.) for several decades, and having now settled down in upstate ?high needs rural? New York (this, according to the official New York State Education Department's designation), I have a strong opinion on the subject of rural and urban educational needs.? And that opinion is, Right on RiShawn!

[T]he idea that the nation's education crisis is only limited to the nation's big cities is false, as are arguments that schools serving suburban students are somehow immune from the same problems of abysmal curricula, laggard instruction and cultures of mediocrity in which only some kids are considered capable of learning. The fact that one out of every four fourth-graders in a suburban school ? and that young male fourth-graders (including half of all those on free- or-reduced lunch plans and one-fifth of those who are not) ? are performing

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The debates surrounding Ohio’s biennial budget and other education-related legislation during the first half of 2011 were intense, and it’s no wonder. The state headed into the year facing a historic deficit, federal stimulus money was vanishing, and school districts were preparing for draconian cuts. Meanwhile, despite decades of reform efforts and increases in school funding, Ohio’s academic performance has remained largely stagnant, with barely one-third of the state’s students scoring proficient or better in either math or reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Achievement gaps continued to yawn between black and white students and between disadvantaged youngsters and their better-off peers.

 Revised considerably by the General Assembly, Governor Kasich’s budget plan (House Bill 153), a 5,000-page document that both funded the Buckeye State through fiscal year 2013 and included dozens of education-policy changes, was signed into law on June 30. The Ohio House and Senate were also engaged during the spring in passing other legislation that impacts schools.

It’s time to take stock. To what extent have Ohio’s leaders met the challenges and opportunities before them in K-12 education? What needs to happen next?

I've already wondered aloud (see here) whether states' quick adoption of the Common Core was more an example of people seeing what they wanted to see than evidence of some broad consensus about what the actual standards meant for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. An article in last week's Education Week does little to assuage those concerns.

The article focused on the CCSS ?publishers' criteria? that was recently released by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. (See here and here for more.) For those who want to see the Common Core faithfully implemented, it raised two chief concerns.

First, Barbara Cambridge, the state director of NCTE's Washington chapter, criticized the publishers' criteria because she feels that they ?signal a usurpation of teacher judgment in ways that are alarming? and because she believes the document shortchanges ?the value of children's own experiences in responding to what they read.?

?The way we learn something new is to attach it to something we already know,? she said. ?So of course what kids bring to school isn't sufficient, but it's important. And to imply we shouldn't spend time on it, with 1st and 2nd graders, is just bad advice.?

Second, Barbara A. Kapinus of the NEA felt that the criteria veered too far into the world of pedagogy. Kapinus argued that, by saying that ?fluency should be a particular focus? of second grade reading programs,

?teachers [may] put a premium on it, despite the developmental variations in when children

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Guest Blogger

The following is a guest post submitted by John Thompson.

I always enjoy Mike Petrilli's arguments. In "Our Schools' Secret Success," he?says that real progress was made during the last two decades for poor kids due to "consequential accountability." I?disagree strongly.? Even so, ?Petrilli demonstrates the third best thing that he (and others at the Flypaper) do in a debate. In contrast with most "reformers," he identifies the operative cause(s) that he (and his opponents) think produced change. In this case, improved reading is the?locomotive of growth.

The second best thing that Petrilli does is that he holds true to the honorable tradition of fairly acknowledging the positions of his opponents. This is a practice that liberal and neo-liberals think tanks have completely abandoned when they attack fellow progressives, teachers, and unions. Embodying?that convention, Petrilli wrote:

"Maybe the progress is mostly due to societal trends such as the end of the crack cocaine epidemic or benefits from a strong 1990s economy - both of which would have made home environments of our neediest children much more hospitable. Perhaps the big increase in education spending over this time period deserves credit, or the major reduction in class sizes."

This common courtesy alerts readers to possible flaws in the next part of?Petrilli's argument - a?position that apparently Petrilli once rejected.?Like Diane Ravitch, Petrilli once advocated for improved test data to be used for a "Consumers Report-type" system of accountability.? His latest post, however,...

Mike isn't wrong when he notes with satisfaction that, on some indicators and at some grade levels, poor and minority students in the U.S. are doing better today than a decade a or so back. Only a churl would say that's not an accomplishment worthy of notice and some pride.

But the big, glum headline over American K-12 education today is essentially the same as when we were declared a ?nation at risk? 28 long years ago: our kids on average are woefully lacking in essential skills and knowledge across every subject in the curriculum.

like a Rose

Almost all the major trend lines are flat?at least until you decompose them by ethnicity. Sure, it's great that minority students have made gains, but what does that do for our international competitiveness if the average score is unchanged or declining? Especially in a time when many competitor nations are moving up on some of those same metrics? And what's the long-term payoff from early-grade gains if scores and outcomes in high school are flat or declining? Some say the early gains are like the pig in the python's throat and it'll just take time for them to reach the tail. But we've had enough experience by now with early-grade gains and high-school sags to throw major doubt on that hypothesis. We simply haven't found?at least on a large scale?ways to sustain and build...

Dan Ariely has a provocative but mostly wrong-headed article in today's Washington Post roundtable on the Atlanta testing scandal. He claims that it's inevitable that teachers will respond to high-stakes tests by cheating just as corporate executives act in ethically challenged ways to please their bosses and investors.?But business people all behave differently, some ethically and some not. What drives the difference?

Take Johnson & Johnson during the 1980s Tylenol scare as an example. For decades, J&J has operated based on a credo that permeates the organization. These values have real relevance in the company, and personnel are promoted and developed based on their adherence to the credo. Business school students read cases on Johnson & Johnson's success at developing this corporate culture. When tragedy struck with the Tylenol murders, J&J acted responsibly, even though they weren't responsible for the deaths. Given the culture there at the time, it's hard to imagine them doing otherwise. Yet J&J also measures its profitability and expects employees to contribute to that bottom line.

Ariely glides over this in his "history lesson," suggesting that measuring and evaluating using a specific criterion necessarily causes people to focus only on what's being measured. That's nonsense, and the proof is in the innovative products and services American corporations have developed on the way to creating trillions of dollars of wealth. There are undoubtedly bad actors in the business world, but there are also a lot of leadership teams that successfully balance measuring...

Here's a new problem facing American education policy: Something we're doing seems to be working.

You wouldn't know it from the ?we're all going to hell in a hand basket? rhetoric surrounding today's education debates, but the last fifteen years have seen tremendous progress for poor, minority, and low-achieving students?the very children that have been the focus of two decades of reform. Curiously, both sides of the education battle want to sweep this news under the carpet.

Namibian students with their Dream book

First the facts. In both the ?basic skills? of reading and math, and in the social studies subjects of history, civics, and now geography, African-American, Latino, and low-income fourth- and eighth-graders have posted huge gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the early 1990s. For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35 points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth-graders gained 24 points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points respectively. In reading, black fourth-graders gained 13 points between 1992 and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography exam, black fourth-grade students gained 28 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino fourth-graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and civics.

To put this in perspective, 10 points is roughly equivalent to a grade level on the...

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