Standards, Testing, & Accountability

This article originally appeared in the April 21 edition of The Education Gadfly newsletter. You can sign up for The Education Gadfly or read an overview of the latest newsletter.

Along with paralysis over the budget (and so much else), there's enduring paralysis on Capitol Hill?over federal education policy. While 2011 has brought a flurry of promising reform activity at the state level, we detect barely a heartbeat in Washington when it comes to updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently NCLB), even though an overhaul is at least four years overdue and just about everyone agrees that it's not working very well.

A year ago, the Obama Administration offered a decent ?blueprint? for reauthorization; but in Congress there are major fissures within each party?and little evidence of desire to cooperate across the aisle. Most commentators agree?and staffers privately admit?that chances are slim for an update before the 2012 elections. Sadly, they are probably right. It's a major abdication of responsibility by our nation's lawmakers.

Click to read our ESEA briefing book

And what makes it especially painful is that there's a pretty obvious path forward, not too different from the Administration's proposal. We sketch it out in a new ESEA reform proposal released this week. It capitalizes on some key realities:

First, NCLB has done a pretty good job of sensitizing the country to the...

Former Bush White House adviser (and NCLB drafter) Sandy Kress turned in a very compelling New York Daily News op-ed on Monday arguing that President Obama has gone "wobbly" on education accountability. [quote] In the piece, Kress presented impressive NAEP data illustrating the big gains that minority and special needs students have made since the late 1990s.

What has caused these and other similar gains? Most researchers say the biggest factor was that in the late 1990s, states began to implement policies holding schools accountable for improving education for children. Further, in 2001, the Congress extended those policies to schools in all states through the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act.

Today, if schools shortchange students, especially subgroups of disadvantaged students, improvement in the operation of the school is required. Student problems can no longer be swept under the rug. Because of "consequential accountability," business as usual is no longer acceptable....

Now, here's the second big secret: For all of its promise to bring about education reform early in the term, the Obama administration wants to turn back the clock on accountability...

Under the framework being proposed for the reform of the law, the administration would require that, unless a school is among the very worst in the nation, it would no longer be required to improve even if it continues to fail its black, Hispanic and other disadvantaged kids. Further, in the case of schools that do not improve, special tutoring and public school choice

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Political leaders hope to act soon to renew and fix the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind). In this important paper, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Executive Vice President Michael J. Petrilli identify 10 big issues that must be resolved in order to get a bill across the finish line, and explore the major options under consideration for each one. Should states be required to adopt academic standards tied to college and career readiness? Should the new law provide greater flexibility to states and districts? These are just a few of the areas discussed. Finn and Petrilli also present their own bold yet “reform realist” solutions for ESEA. Read on to learn more.

The 10 big issues

Issue #1 College and career readiness - Should states be required to adopt academic standards tied to college and career readiness (such as the Common Core)?

Issue #2 Cut scores - What requirements, if any, should be placed upon states with respect to achievement standards (i.e., "cut scores")?

Issue #3 Growth measures - Should states be required to develop assessments that enable measures of individual student growth?

Issue...

This morning, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released our ESEA Briefing Book. The report serves two purposes: First, to provide helpful background for reporters, analysts, and even hill staffers following the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka, No Child Left Behind). Hence, we identify 10 of the key issues that Congress must resolve to get a bill across the finish line, and offer the major options on the table (and their pros and cons) for each one.

The second purpose is to offer our own recommendations, in line with what we've been calling "Reform Realism" for two years now. Reform Realism--a pro-school-reform orientation that is also realistic about what the federal government can (and cannot) do well in K-12 education--entails three main principles:

?Tight-loose? ? Greater national clarity about our goals and expectations for students (i.e., standards linked to real-world demands of college and career), but much greater flexibility around how states, communities, and schools actually get their students there.

Transparency instead of Accountability ? Results-based accountability in education is vital, but it can't successfully be imposed from Washington. Instead, Uncle Sam should ensure that our education system's results?and finances?are transparent to the public, to parents, to local and state officials (and voters), and, of course, to educators.

Incentives over Mandates ?When Uncle Sam seeks to promote specific reforms in education, he should do so through carrots rather than sticks?and...

OhioFlypaper

Sean Cavanagh's recent blog in Education Week depicts cautionary warnings from Byong Man Ahn, the former South Korean Minister of Education. He suggests that over-testing children can adversely impact a student's desire and ability to learn.? Mr. Ahn warns the United States not to follow his country's education model, arguing that his country is too test-centered, saying, ?we force the students to memorize so much that they experience pain rather than pleasure [of] acquiring knowledge through the learning process.? ??According to Ahn, South Korea's overly tested and rigid curriculum has placed extreme pressures on students while simultaneously stifling their creativity.

Vicki Abeles makes a similar argument in the documentary ?Race to Nowhere? claiming that increased homework loads and stress to perform well in school are adversely affecting American students' achievement and health. It may be true that stress exists for some, but this is a less compelling case to make in the US, where achievement is lagging in comparison to countries like South Korea. Abeles claims that students arrive to college burnt out,? but once on campus, many college goers fail to enhance their own creativity at a time when they have greater freedom and flexibility to do so (compared to K-12). Claiming that burnout is due to too much pressure to achieve during high school seems to oversimplify the problem.?

But the main point is that Mr. Ahn's criticisms of Korea's education system and Abeles' argument that we are already putting too much pressure on...

Unlike Fat Tuesday or St. Patrick's Day, April 19th may not strike you as an unofficial drinking holiday. But then you haven't been reading Jay Greene lately, who has created a nifty little drinking game to accompany Fordham's ESEA reauthorization proposal to be released tomorrow.

Here's a sneak peek; in our "Briefing Book" we lay out 10 of the key questions that we believe Congress needs to answer in order to get a new ESEA across the finish line, identify the major options for each one, and present the pros and cons. Our recommendations will wait till the morning, but see if you think we got the issues right.

The 10 big issues

  1. College and career readiness - Should states be required to adopt academic standards tied to college and career readiness (such as the Common Core)?
  2. Cut scores - What requirements, if any, should be placed upon states with respect to achievement standards (i.e., "cut scores")?
  3. Growth measures - Should states be required to develop assessments that enable measures of individual student growth?
  4. Science and History - Must states develop standards and assessments in additional subjects beyond English/language arts and math?
  5. School ratings - Should Adequate Yearly Progress be maintained, revised, or scrapped?
  6. Interventions - What requirements, if any, should be placed on states in terms of regarding and sanctioning schools and turning around the lowest performers?
  7. Teacher effectiveness - Should Congress regulate teacher credentials (as with the current "highly qualified teachers" mandate) and/or
  8. ...

Yesterday afternoon my colleague Chris Irvine and I sat down with three of Denmark's most promising. They're elected leaders of the Association of Danish Pupils, the nation's student-run education-policy organization. (Think: a national student council, or a stellar group of model Congress participants, only the model Congress actually gets to influence policy.)

A few highlights stood out to me as we explained the American education system and federal and state policy, and heard a bit about the issues facing Denmark's schools:

  • The Danes are struggling with how to incorporate virtual learning into the classroom in much the same way that the United States is. For these intrepid youth, intent on discovering means of diversifying instruction and providing targeted, individualized instruction, digital learning wasn't really on their radar. According to the youth, Denmark is behind when it comes to virtual schooling. We commiserated over that fact?and I wondered silently how long it would be before each of our nations were so far behind in this domain that it is noticeably and negatively affecting our global competitiveness. Hopefully we push the throttle forward on digital learning and don't see that reality come to pass.
  • We talked briefly about how our two countries handle special education. The students raised an important issue?special education is extremely expensive in Denmark?and no one really knows how the money is being allocated, or if the money is being well-spent. Yet, while the high schoolers eagerly explained that the percentage of funding that goes to special-education
  • ...

Last September, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren adopted the Common Core standards in ELA but not in math, arguing that the state's existing math standards were far superior than the CCSS. With a new Commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, selected by the new Democratic governor, Republican lawmakers are now working to ensure that that decision cannot be revisited.

An education bill introduced last week specifically prohibits the Commissioner ?from adopting common core standards in the subject and school year listed in the revision cycle in paragraphs (a) to (f).?? (See here and here.) Translated, that means that, when the state's math standards are up for revision in 2015, the state will not be permitted to adopt the Common Core.

Even more troubling, though, the sweeping statement has implications that go well beyond math, because the revision cycles outlined in ?paragraphs (a) to (f)? include science, social studies, technology and information literacy, the arts, and language arts. That means that, if passed, this bill would prevent the state from adopting common standards in any content area?no matter how much better than the state's existing standards they may be.

It also calls into question what's going to happen the next time the state's ELA standards are up for revision in 2018. Will the state be forced to replace the CCSS with different standards because this short-sighted provision prohibits the Commissioner from adopting any common core standards? I assume--perhaps naively--that wasn't the lawmakers' intent. Let's hope it doesn't become...

When Sheldon and Jeremy Stern reviewed the Minnesota social studies standards earlier this year, there was certainly much room for improvement. (See here for the full review.) Unfortunately, if a description of the changes by the Minneapolis Star Tribune is right, it sounds like the state may be moving in exactly the wrong direction. According to the article,

a key goal for this year's social studies committee, which is made up of citizens and teachers, is to shrink the standards to more manageable lengths, which means far fewer examples than are contained in the current standards.

Note first that the committee is made up of ?citizens and teachers.? Does that mean to imply that the state isn't deliberately soliciting the input of historians? Let's hope not. While there would certainly be tension between what the historians wanted to include and what the teachers felt was manageable, such tension is a healthy way to ensure the pendulum doesn't swing too far in one direction or another.

Further, it's disheartening to hear that the state is moving to remove content from the standards, given that the Sterns felt the inclusion of so much substantive content was the best part about the standards.

On the other hand, they felt the standards were ?poorly organized, chronologically confused, and divorced from context,? and that ?political bias also makes unwelcome intrusions at all levels, at the expense of balanced historical perspectives.? Addressing those problems doesn't appear to have been the...

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