Standards, Testing & Accountability

chocolate-covered face photo

Couldn't swear off chocolate--but maybe
this implementation thing will stick.
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

Forget swearing off sweets or hitting the gym; the New
Year’s resolution trending among education policymakers seems to be “getting
tough on implementation.” First, Arne Duncan ruined Hawaii’s holidays with a
stern Christmas card: The state is now on “high-risk status,” with access to
its remaining Race to the Top grant money severely limited until it stops dawdling
and starts implementing promised reforms. This from a federal education
department that has so far accommodated slow-moving states and approved dozens
of RTTT-application amendments. Perhaps energized (or concerned) by Duncan’s
newfound nerve, New York’s state commissioner of education, John King, is also
hopping on the “hard on implementation” wagon. This week, the Empire State’s commish announced that he’s withholding $60 million from Gotham’s SIG funding
after negotiations
broke down between the district and the union
over—what else?—teacher evaluations. (He’s cutting...

clown fish in anemone photo

Like clown fish and anemone, teacher evals
and merit pay need each other.
Photo by Rob

Teacher evaluations are particularly contentious of late, as
educators in New York and Hawaii can testify
, which is why it’s worth
remembering what can happen when they’re done right. Sam Dillon provided a
heartening reminder in his New York Times
feature on merit pay last weekend, highlighting D.C.’s pioneering IMPACTplus
system. Critics of these initiatives point to studies finding that padding star
teachers’ paychecks doesn’t
boost student achievement
; the best educators were working hard to begin
with, and a few extra dollars won’t squeeze more from them. Dillon’s interviews
with DCPS teachers who received bonuses, however—which can be as high as
$25,000—reveal the potential of meaningful performance-based pay to bring about
systemic change. In a profession with brutal turnover, getting talented young
professionals into classrooms may be less important than keeping them there. D.C.

Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit cover
Building off their May 2011 conference of the same name,
this volume, edited by American Enterprise Institute scholars Rick Hess and
Andrew Kelly, offers a one-stop-shop for expert views on the federal role in
education over the past fifty years. The book (which includes a chapter from
our own Chester Finn) tackles topics ranging from federal efforts at promoting
equity to the courts’ role in education. While the tome doesn't much aim to
resolve the debate about the federal role, it does inject this timely issue
with a healthy dose of perspective, offering a nuanced picture of the feds'
capabilities. Particularly relevant, the chapter on the feds’ role in research
(which has emerged
as a hot topic in recent months
)—written by Jane Hannaway and Mark
Schneider—offers a keen take on how the feds have tried to balance rigor,
relevance, and politics as they pursue education research. Similarly compelling
is the chapter on Uncle Sam’s investment in innovation, where discussions of
RTTT and i3 feature prominently. Despite the book’s historic...

few weeks ago, Diane Ravitch posted a challenge on Twitter:

challenge anyone who supports the current testing regime to take the 12th grade
test for graduation and release the results to the media.”

tweet was a response to a post published by Valerie Strauss in early December that
told the story of a prominent and, by all accounts, very successful Florida school board
member who took a state ELA and math test and publicized his results. (He
earned 17 percent in math, 62 percent in reading.) His experience caused him to
question to validity of using tests as part of a statewide accountability
system. He said:

makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s
entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world
functioning…I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test]
in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals
who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

agreed and concluded:

you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately...

If you’re to believe the rhetoric around Common Core, these new college- and career-ready standards are poised to usher in major education changes—changes that will help better prepare American students for the rigors of university coursework and the workplace.

On the other hand, if you’re to read individual states’ own descriptions of the differences between the Common Core and existing ELA and math standards, the changes seem far less dramatic.

Since they have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), nearly every state has undertaken some kind of review that compared existing ELA and math standards to the CCSS. And, almost without exception, these comparisons found near-perfect alignment between the CCSS and state ELA and math standards.

A Tennessee’s curriculum and assessment “crosswalk,” for example, found that “97 percent of the CCSS ELA standards have a match in Tennessee’s ELA standards, with 90 percent being rated an excellent or good match.” On the math side, Tennessee found that there are “no grade-level difference[s] in Kindergarten and only a 1 percent difference in 1st grade…” Similar comparisons by state departments of education around the country have found similar levels of alignment. (This despite the fact that our own...

“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.

So 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 yesterday, 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...

After more than ten years under NCLB, that law’s legacy continues to be fiercely contested. This analysis of NAEP scores—focusing on Texas and on the entire nation—by former NCES commissioner Mark 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 warns that the recent plateau in Texas math scores may foreshadow a coming stagnation in the country’s performance. Has the testing-and-accountability movement as we know it run out of steam? How else might we rekindle our nation’s education progress?

Download the analysis to find out, and be sure to watch the replay of Fordham's January 5 discussion of the paper and consequential accountability in general, "Has the Accountability Movement Run Its Course?"

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...

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...

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...