Standards, Testing & Accountability

Liam Julian

The president said today he wants a No Child Left Behind rewrite before students' summer vacations end this September. And he wants other things, too. According to the Washington Post, Obama ?wants a more flexible system that focuses on preparing graduating students for college and career and he wants better assessments to understand whether kids are meeting that goal.? He wants ?skills such as critical thinking and creativity? to be reintegrated into math, science, and reading lessons, and he wants teachers to be both supported and judged to some degree by the rate of their students' academic progress. And he wants education to be funded robustly: ?Let me make it plain: We cannot cut education. We can't cut the things that will make America more competitive.? Quite the wish list.

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

Over in the more feverish corners of the blogosphere, and sometimes even in saner locales, the Shanker Institute's call for "common content" curriculum to accompany the Common Core standards has triggered a panic attack. There's talk of "bait and switch," of double-cross, of treacherous inconsistency, of blah blah blah?all associated with what is depicted as the dire threat of a "national curriculum."

And yes, I signed onto it, so am said to be personally culpable.

For Pete's sake, people, this is an effort to help teachers do a better job of getting their pupils to a higher standard of achievement in English and math, not to repeal local control, eliminate autonomy and choice, or impose the federal government on state and local education agencies.

Let's keep a few important "knowns" in mind.

First, we know that many teachers crave better curricular guidance aligned with?quality academic standards that in turn are (one hopes) in alignment with the assessments that?their students will be taking and their performance will be judged on.

Second, we know that, absent such guidance and materials, some gifted teachers are willing and able to develop sound curricula for themselves?and some others are able to borrow (often, nowadays, from websites, bulletin boards, and such) from?curricula developed by other teachers who have already done the heavy lifting.

But, third,?we also know that?far too many teachers, unsupplied with decent curricular specifics and materials by their schools, districts, and states, wind up using crummy...

There continues to be a lot of discussion around the idea of creating a ?common? curriculum to supplement the Common Core State Standards. Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge applauds the move, arguing that, while the CCSS are ?praiseworthy,? they are ?not a curriculum?and are unlikely to amount to much?in the absence of a shared curriculum.? ?Tom Vander Ark cautions that moving to adopt a traditional curriculum is a mistake and that we should be thinking not about common curriculum, but rather about ?uncommon? delivery system that provides ?fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student.? (If you haven't already, it's also worth reading Pondiscio's scathing take-down of Vander Ark's idea.)

Unfortunately, I still think that these debates are missing the point, and potentially distracting states from allocating their now very scarce resources towards policies that have the potential to much more dramatically impact student achievement.

It's worth noting that, as a former curriculum director, I am a strong believer in the transformative power of curriculum. It is essential.

But, I sincerely believe that making curricular decisions at the state or?even worse?national level is a mistake. States would do better to create or adopt rigorous assessments and a strong state accountability system, and then to devolve ownership over student achievement results?and that includes curricular decisions?as closely as possible to the classroom.

Heading up the curriculum and professional development team at Achievement First, one of our early missteps was to focus on mandating?or...

So what else is new?? Isn't this just the statistic that confirms the message of Nation at Risk or the flat NAEP scores for the last forty years?

The troubling?part of Arne Duncan's Capitol Hill testimony yesterday?is that he concludes from the dismal statistics ? that 80,000 of our 100,000 public schools are failing ? that it's the law's fault. ?This law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it this year,? he told the House education committee. We all know what ?this law? means: No Child Left Behind.

Harping about NCLB's tough love approach to school improvement has dogged the revolutionary bill almost from the beginning ? I say almost because it was at first hailed as a masterstroke of nonpartisanship. Under intense pushback from teachers and their unions, however that coalition quickly splintered along predictable partisan lines. Then came a host of nitpicking, from left and right, that has made the NCLB brand poisonous.? ???

The huge law no doubt has flaws. Liam says that ?a seminal problem? with it is ?its focus on race,? the infamous subgroup standard that has sent many schools to the proficiency woodshed. President Obama says we need to replace NCLB with ?a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids.?? Mike says??NCLB has done ?some good,? mostly for poor and minority students, but has had some ?unintended consequences,? including too much testing in too few subjects.? But the major benefit...

Today, education leaders from across the nation (including our own Checker Finn) came together to endorse the idea of creating a national, voluntary, common curriculum that would be designed to supplement the national, voluntary, Common Core ELA and math standards. (See here and here for more.) While well-intentioned, shifting the focus right now to a national curriculum?no matter how voluntary?is a mistake.

That's not to say that teachers aren't going to need rigorous and thorough curricula to help them effectively teach to the standards. They are.

Rather, it's a question of what is the proper role of the state in CCSS implementation. And unless the state wants to get in the business of policing schools' proper implementation of a curriculum?whether that ?curriculum? is as detailed as a script or as general as a pacing guide?they would do better to focus the lion's share of their time and attention elsewhere. Namely, on ensuring that there are rigorous, CCSS-aligned summative state assessments in all core content areas.

The easy answer is of course to say that's already being taken care of. Most states have joined one of two consortia and the work on those CCSS-aligned assessments is already well underway.

But there is still much assessment work that needs to be done. For starters, between now and when the consortia-created assessments are ready for prime-time, states be tweaking their existing assessment blueprints to ensure that essential content is being properly prioritized across the grades.

What's...

OhioFlypaper

Education in Ohio, as in most of the country, is coming to terms with a challenging ?new normal,? as Arne Duncan calls it?the prolonged period ahead when schools must produce better results with diminished resources. The Buckeye State faces a daunting budget shortfall over the next two years, the resolution of which will powerfully affect K-12 education, which now consumes about 40 percent of the state's money. And Ohio's situation is far from unique.

Yet schools?in Ohio and beyond?can produce better-educated students on leaner rations so long as their leaders are empowered to deploy the available resources in the most effective and efficient ways, unburdened by mandates, regulatory constraints, and dysfunctional contract clauses. That's the message that comes through loudest from a new survey of the state's school superintendents. And again there's no reason to believe that Ohio's situation is unique.

While governors and lawmakers are responsible for balancing state budgets, it is district and school leaders who must make their schools work on tighter resources while still boosting achievement and effectiveness. Over the past year, as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has organized various discussions, conferences, and symposia across Ohio on the big challenge of ?doing more with less? in K-12 education, we've been privy to innumerable comments?usually off the record?by superintendents and school leaders along the lines of, ?We could survive these cuts if we had real control over our budgets.? They called in...

Amy Fagan

As you probably know, we recently released a?new study,?The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011). Our reviewers, historians Sheldon M. Stern and Jeremy A. Stern, graded states' U.S. history standards (for K-12) and unfortunately, 28 states got Ds or Fs. Here, the authors talk about how they went about their reviews, what makes standards good or bad, etc.

Also,?Fordham's Mike Petrilli and Kathleen Porter-Magee did a radio tour when our study was released. I now have a few more of those clips to provide. Mike talked to KFWB in Los Angeles, California; he also?discussed the study?with KTRH in Houston Texas; and?he chatted with?KOA in Denver, Colorado as well.?Meanwhile, Kathleen?shared?thoughts?with WPTF in North Carolina.

--Amy Fagan...

Anyone who's followed more than a few releases of NAEP scores recognizes the familiar feeling of disenchantment that accompanies it. Scores are low across subgroups? and criminally low for minority students and low-income kids; trends are flat, stagnant, stalled, barely budging; wide achievement gaps persist. And NAEP illustrates time and time again how proficiency rates according to states' own achievement tests tend to be higher and therefore misleading (check out Fordham's 2007 report, The Proficiency Illusion) ? all the more reason to be happy that Ohio and other states have signed onto Common Core standards in ELA and math.

According to recently released 2009 scores for the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA), Cleveland fourth and eighth graders performed just as abysmally in science as they did in reading and math. At least according to NAEP scores, one might say that Cleveland's closest cousin is Detroit (the only district whose students fared worse in science). The bad news takes a variety of forms:

  • Among the 17 participating districts in the NAEP TUDA, eight of them had students in both grades scoring lower than the large city average nationally. Cleveland earns that distinction.
  • In both fourth and eighth grades (according to average scale scores) Cleveland ranks at the very bottom, beating out only Detroit.
  • Scores for Cleveland eighth graders place them in the 21st percentile in science nationally; fourth graders are in the 16th percentile.
  • Not only do Clevelanders fail to reach science proficiency, but 70 percent
  • ...

Just when I thought we were making progress in devising a national core curriculum, everyone is already talking about tests based on the Common Core, which is still in its infancy.?

In New York State, the Regents recently entertained a proposal to replace their Regents Exams with tests developed by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).? Those are the folks representing 26 states which educate 60 percent of our K--12 students.?

Rick Hess weighed in last week with an essay wondering whether the common core was ?running off the rails already.?? Hess's worries derive from a recent symposium on ?through-course assessment? that was attended by ?a slew of heavy-hitters from the world of assessment and test development,??including PARCC.

What surprised Hess, as he writes, was ?a seeming disregard for the policy or practical impact of this whole enterprise.?? One problem is that there are laws prohibiting?the use of?federal funds to develop curricula.? Then there's the money problem: who's going to pay for the new assessments?? As mentioned before (here), Rick also has questions about how a national curriculum will impact the experimentation values of the charter school movement.

All of this suggests?a larger problem:? while we? inch toward a common curriculum, we are getting bogged down?in a distracting?debate on state autonomy while?the standards and testing industry is zooming ahead, already writing tests based on standards -- and no curriculum. ???????

As Catherine Gewertz at Education...

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