Standards, Testing & Accountability

I stewed most of the week about how to respond to Deborah Meier's recent Bridging Differences post on ?college for all.?? She's against it, of course. She thinks the movement is another piece of the right-wing, high-stakes testing, corporate behemoth conspiracy.? And I had a high-brow response almost ready to go (see College for All, Please! Part 2, coming soon) ? until yesterday morning, when I picked up my New York Times and read (in the new ?Sunday Review? section) David Leonhardt's masterful KO of the silly notion that we shouldn't encourage kids to go to college: Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off. As Whitney Tilson would say Stop the Presses!!!? ?The graphics alone (compiled from the Center on Education and the Work Force at Georgetown) should take your breath away:

  • A dishwasher with a college degree earns 83% more than a dishwasher with no college
  • A cashier with a college degree, 56% more
  • A plumber, 39%


Writes Leonhardt:

The most unfortunate part of the case against college is that it encourages children, parents and schools to aim low.

Why should we even be arguing about this?

Leonhardt quotes...

Here's a quick test; true or false?

1. Arne Duncan coerced many states into adopting the Common Core via his Race to the Top application.

2. The Obama Administration carelessly hinted that adoption of Common Core might become a requirement in a new ESEA or for states wanting a waiver from the current law.

3. Most states are free to back out of Common Core at any time, yet none have.

The answers: true, true, true!

The reason I bring this up is two-fold. First, several conservatives, perplexed by Jeb Bush's continued support for the Common Core, keep making the case that the standards aren't voluntary. And if they mean that some states adopted the standards because of federal pressure, they are right. But second, I bring it up because we are days away from the end of the 2011 state legislative session, and to my knowledge, not a single law was enacted to block a state from participating in Common Core. Yet, save for the Race to the Top winners--and the handful that might be contenders for the "round three" money this year--all of the states are free to opt out...

I have been an avid follower of Jay Mathews' work since starting here at Fordham, but his recent argument with a Fairfax County parent over Fairfax's decision to get rid of honors courses across the district caused me to panic. (FPCS has three standard tracks:? general, honors and A.P. courses). Their point of contention was Jay's suggestion that the district instead eliminate the general-level classes, calling on the schools to place all students in at least honors courses, giving them the skills needed to read, write and manage time well enough to succeed after high school. At this point my anxiety set in.

From my experience teaching at an under-performing high school in a blue-collar area of Metro-Detroit, I am all-too-familiar with mislabeled classes and the problems they create. The class I taught was an A.P. Government course, the same course I took in high school with a group of top-notch students, over 90% of which took and passed the A.P. Exam. The course I taught, however, looked nothing like what I had previously encountered. The chapter exams were all multiple-choice and the questions (and answers) were given to the students literally word-for-word during the...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...