Standards, Testing & Accountability

Education Week’s latest report provides readers with an overview of the concerns and challenges—and a few of the early successes—surrounding implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). This compilation of six articles offers anecdotal information on a number of “early adopter” districts—including specifics on how the Common Core may affect classroom instruction and content delivery. According to the report, most early adopters are phasing in the CCSS, initially for Kindergarteners and first graders only; a number of them are collaborating on curriculum development and training materials—all available via open-source online portals. Still more are incorporating the special-education teaching tactics of “universal design for learning” (UDL) and “response to intervention” (RTI)—which promote flexible classroom materials and help individualize instruction—into general-education learning. Some promising initiatives are afoot—but Ed Week’s anecdotes (as well as its inattention to how states are preparing for Common Core assessments and linked accountability systems) do little to assuage fears that CCSS implementation is moving too slowly.

Education Week, Math, Literacy, & Common Standards (Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education, April 2012)....

On Monday, I wondered aloud whether the debate among policy elites over the value of the Common Core had become nihilistic. Yesterday, Terry Ryan, Fordham's VP for Ohio programs and policy, confirmed that, at least in the heartland, the discussions among practitioners about the value and potential of the Common Core was far more optimistic and productive. Terry described how Ohio educators, interviewed by journalist Ellen Belcher for a forthcoming report, view the transition to and the potential of the new expectations:

The educators in Ohio interviewed by Belcher, the people on the frontlines of our schools who work daily with our kids, see the move towards the Common Core as a positive. But, they worry seriously about the implementation challenges, and they fear that somehow our political leadership class will screw all of this up and turn a good into something bad. Or, as one Cleveland educator remarked, “the Common Core is the right work we should be doing as a country.” “But let’s not make this the metric system of our time…and all of sudden stop.” This is thoughtful guidance from someone actually doing the work.
Common sense, increasingly scarce in the public debate around the Common...

Last week, Tom Loveless penned an Education Week op-ed where he (again) argued that the Common Core standards don’t matter—that the quality of a state’s standards has little correlation with how well students in that state fare on the NAEP.

Loveless’s main point—which is mostly right—is that statewide standards implementation has not led to dramatic student achievement gains. He notes, for instance, that “from 2003 to 2009, states with terrific standards raised their National Assessment of Educational Progress scores by roughly the same margin as states with awful ones.”

It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results.

Yet, we do know that teachers, schools, and even districts that set high standards for student learning, hold teachers and principals accountable for reaching specified goals, align curriculum and instruction to the standards, and intentionally use short- and long-term data to drive instruction are able to make significant gains for kids. It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results. At least on the school and district level.

Therein lies the challenge: we have yet to see equally dramatic results on the state level.

Of course, we at Fordham have long...

One of the great mysteries of modern-day school reform is why we’re seeing such strong progress (in math at least, especially among our lowest-performing students) at the elementary and middle school levels, but not in high school.

Consider: Nine-year-olds at the 10th percentile posted 12 points of progress between 1990 and 2008 on the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress—10 of those points between 1999 and 2004 alone. (That’s about a grade level’s worth of gains.) Thirteen-year-olds at the 10th percentile posted 7 points of progress from 1990 and 2008. But seventeen-year-olds at the 10th percentile only gained 3 points. (The story is much the same for the 25th percentile.) The story for reading is more sobering, with big gains at the nine-year-old level, a flattening out in middle school, and actually declines in high school.

NAEP Age 17

The question is how to interpret these trends. One hypothesis is about fade-out: The improvements at the elementary level are ephemeral, perhaps because the way math or reading is taught doesn’t set students up for future...

The pineapple and the gadfly

Standardized testing, school closures, and a pineapple: Rick and Janie cover it all this week, while Amber wonders whether weighted-student funding made a difference in Hartford after all.

Amber's Research Minute

Funding a Better Education: conclusions from the first three years of student-based budgeting in hartford

Leonie Haimson—a vocal ed-reform critic—helped generate a media firestorm about testing recently when she posted about an absurd passage that was included on this year’s New York State eighth grade ELA test. The post itself generated more than 2,000 hits in its first few hours and led to a New York Daily News article entitled “Talking pineapple question on state exam stumps ... everyone!

The citrus fruit that rocked education reform.
 Photo by Richard North.

The passage on the exam needs to be read in full to be believed. It’s a perfect storm of bad writing, poor structure, and inexplicable questions. If you haven’t read it—and you should—it’s enough to know that the moral of the story—included in bold at the end—is this:

Moral of the story: Pineapples don't have sleeves.

Haimson and her fellow testing foes are right to call out this passage as ridiculous. And critics of accountability can and should play this role, helping surface problems and draw attention to the need for...

Among the suite of education proposals included in Governor Kasich’s “mid-biennium review” legislation is a transition from Ohio’s current, confusing, and complicated school-rating system to a more straightforward A to F one. Not only would the new system be easier for parents, educators, and the public to understand, it would also provide a more accurate assessment of how well schools and districts in the Buckeye State are educating students (which isn’t quite as well as many of them have been led to believe – see Bianca and Terry’s analysis, here). The proposed changes are a necessary step towards a more honest appraisal of how well prepared Buckeye State students are for the work and college. It also provides insights for what is necessary to increase preparedness for students moving forward.

But another change in the works, one not included in the governor’s bill (because it doesn’t require a change in law), is equally important when it comes to helping all players in the K-12 arena prepare for the higher expectations and rigor of the Common Core standards and the 21st-century global economy in which our students, as adults, will compete.

Early drafts of this year’s district-...

Grade inflation is a way of life in American education, and campaigns to combat it face political pushback and a long, uphill battle to succeed.

Back in 2007, the Fordham Institute published “The Proficiency Illusion" that showed states were calibrating their tests to create “a false impression of success, especially in reading and especially in the early grades.” Further, public polling routinely shows that people think highly of their local schools (and their own children’s academic preparedness), but the data don’t back up such optimism.

There is considerable evidence that our schools aren’t performing as well as we’ve been led to believe: While two-thirds of Ohio’s school districts received a top rating last year of “Excellent” or “Excellent with Distinction” more than 40 percent of the state’s entering college freshmen had to take remedial courses in college. Still, efforts to raise expectations and confront the problem of grade inflation face stiff resistance. There has been tremendous blowback in the Buckeye State against proposed changes to the state’s accountability system that would see the percentage of top rated school districts in the state drop from 63 percent to just four percent. Under the new system, 74 percent of the state’s...

Streeeeetching the school dollar

Mike and Adam talk space shuttles, vouchers, and how districts can make the most of tight budgets on this week’s podcast, while Amber explains what special ed looks like in the Bay State.

Amber's Research Minute

Review of Special Education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts - Download the PDF

As the Texas Board of Education weighs revisions to the state's math standards this week, it must also consider strong criticism from the business community and the media over the proposed changes. Fordham's new review of the draft math standards, by W. Stephen Wilson, adds another reason for the board to think twice before approving the changes. As Wilson writes,

The new standards are an improvement. Some content that was previously missing from the [existing] standards has been included, the standards remain clear and well organized, and the high school content remains strong.
Unfortunately, Texas has overcorrected its minimalist problem by adding too many standards—many of which descend inappropriately into pedagogy—and including a lot of unnecessary repetition. Worse, the new draft standards overemphasize process, and arithmetic is not given suitable priority.

While the proposed changes are an improvement on the status quo in the Lone Star State, they’re far from stellar—and pale in comparison with the CCSS alternative. By going it alone, Texas had hoped to do better than the Common Core. Unfortunately, it missed the mark. Now it’s high time for its Board of Education to recognize that going from lousy to ok just...