Standards, Testing, & Accountability

There are two stories in today's New York Times that merit some consideration. One is an essay about a sperm donor and the other is a pop history quiz (sorry, test-haters, it's multiple choice). ?What the two have in common is 12th-grade.? The essay writer, one Colton Wooten, we are told, ?graduated from Leesville Road High School* this month.?? And the Times test is taken from the infamous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) history exam that got so much press this past week (see here and here).

Start with the test. As the headline asks, ?Are You as Smart as a 12th Grader??? Well, my guess is that the average adult American is probably as smart as the average 12th-grader, considering that only 12 percent of the NAEP sample of seniors were proficient in the history test.? But the questions are not easy ? everyone remember what the Ordinance of Nullification was? ? and the test, however golden a standard,? is probably a better measure of the nation's curriculum anarchy than of student knowledge.? (See my post on the national obsession with putting the assessment cart before the curriculum horse.)

Mr. Wooten's essay illustrates a different set of challenges for our schools; most specifically, how do you teach writing?? The young man's op-ed essay is wonderfully constructed and shows a mastery of the topic and of the writing craft that is far more mature than the standard 12th-grade fare I've read.

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Note: These were my opening comments during Wednesday's Fordham Institute panel, "Is it Time to Turn the Page on Federal Accountability in Education?" Video of the event is available here.

Let me say at the outset that what I am about to propose is not going to transform America's education system. It won't propel the United States ahead of our international competitors on PISA. It won't eliminate our stubborn achievement gaps. It won't do any of these things because, for better or worse, the federal government is incapable of affecting these kinds of sweeping changes. Not for any ideological reasons, but for structural reasons. Uncle Sam is at least three steps removed from the classroom, and all the carrots and sticks in the world won't allow him to make everything right in our schools. [quote]

The WRONG way to think about federal policy in education is to identify the myriad problems plaguing our schools, and then dream up federal solutions, as if Congress could pass a law and magically things would change in the real world (and without any unintended consequences).

The RIGHT way to think about federal policy is to figure out what Uncle Sam is capable of doing, and then doing that well.

Now, I disagree with some friends on the right, like Jennifer and her colleagues at Heritage, that there is basically NOTHING...

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Guest Blogger

The following, by Peter Wehner, originally appeared on the Commentary Magazine blog.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released its 2010 ?report card? on the command of history our fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders have. The results are not encouraging. Over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam. (NAEP defines three achievement levels for each test: ?basic? denotes partial mastery of a subject; ?proficient? represents solid academic performance and a demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter; and ?advanced? means superior performance.)

The tests were given last spring to a representative sample of 7,000 fourth graders, 11,800 eighth graders, and 12,400 12th graders nationwide, with history being one of eight subjects covered by NAEP (the others are math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics). The nation's eighth graders posted gains in American history achievement compared with four years ago, while at the fourth and twelfth grades, we saw no statistically significant changes since 2006.

It turns out history is the worst subject for American students (economics is the best). For examples, most fourth graders are unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and few high school seniors were able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War. Diane Ravitch, an education expert, drew special attention to the low scores for high school seniors....

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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?

So...

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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...

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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...

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