Standards, Testing & Accountability

Policy wonks and political prognosticators have begun to forecast the collateral damage that is apt to follow if Donald Trump manages—in spite of himself, and notwithstanding his Wisconsin setback—to win the Republican nomination, damaging not only GOP prospects for retrieving the White House but also the party’s odds of prevailing in innumerable races for Congress and for state (and even local) leadership. Following in the wake of those generally dire prognostications are early conjectures about the policy shifts that may ensue in sundry realms both international and domestic if Democrats are positioned to chart the future course.

For education reformers parsing this prospect, it’s useful first to recall the many worthy changes that followed the GOP’s 2010 sweep of a galaxy of state and federal offices (obviously omitting the one that’s ovular). Though nothing in the list below is (from my perspective) perfect, it’s hard to picture many—perhaps any—of these things happening had Republicans not been in positions of influence:

  • New assessments in most states, geared to higher academic standards and featuring higher “cut scores” that correspond more accurately and honestly to the actual demands of college, career, and international competitiveness
  • Accelerating the spread of school choice, both the public version (typically
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Regular Gadfly readers know that we usually rely on two metrics when analyzing school performance—Ohio’s performance index and the value added measures. However, the state assigns A–F ratings along several other measures, including one called the “gap closing” component (a.k.a. annual measureable objectives, or AMOs). This measure deserves scrutiny now that state policy makers have the opportunity to retool the accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA).

First implemented in 2012–13 as a modification to the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)provisions, AMOs are meant to hold schools accountable for the proficiency of student subgroups (e.g., low-income or race/ethnicity). Specifically, the measure compares the proficiency rates of a school’s subgroups to statewide proficiency targets—the “measureable objective.” The AMO methodology also gives partial (up to full) credit to schools when subgroup proficiency increases from year to year. The idea of AMOs is to maintain pressure on schools to close longstanding gaps between low-achieving subgroups and their peers.

Shortly after ESSA passed, the U.S. Department of Education notified states they were freed from using AMOs in their accountability systems. That doesn’t mean that low-achieving students will be forgotten: The new federal law requires an...

Despite the continued controversy surrounding Common Core, the vast majority of states that originally adopted the standards have chosen to stick with them. But the same can’t be said of several new standards-aligned assessments.

Developed by two state consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, these new tests offered member states shared ownership over common assessments, significant cost savings, and the ability to compare student performance across states. Despite this initial promise, however, membership in PARCC (and, to a lesser degree, Smarter Balanced) has been dwindling for some time now. But is this attrition due to the quality of the tests, as some claim?

To inform states about the quality and content of PARCC and Smarter Balanced, Fordham conducted the first comprehensive evaluation of three “next-generation” tests this past summer, recruiting reviewers who examined operational test items from PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and ACT Aspire. We also evaluated one highly regarded existing state test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Our team of rock star reviewers, comprising educators and experts on content and assessment, judged these tests against benchmarks based on the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO’s) “...

If I had to pick just one reason to support Common Core, it would be to address the paucity of nonfiction texts read by students in elementary and middle school reading instruction. Gaps in background knowledge and vocabulary make it stubbornly difficult to raise reading achievement. Conceptualizing reading comprehension as a skill you can apply to any ol’ text broadly misses the point. By encouraging reading in history, science, and other disciplines across the curriculum, Common Core encourages “a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give [students] the background to be better readers in all content areas.”

Thus, it is great good news that the 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education finds the dominance of fiction waning in the fourth and eighth grades. The standards call for a 50/50 mix of fiction and non-fiction in fourth grade. In 2011, 63 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported emphasizing fiction in class, while only 38 percent said they emphasized non-fiction. A mere four years later, the gap is down to just eight percentage points (53 percent to 45 percent).

On the math side, CCSS asks for fewer topics or strands, as well as a focus on whole number arithmetic from kindergarten...

  • Even before they start school, inner-city students are often beset by huge learning obstacles—from the infamous thirty-million-word gap to the perils of urban violence—that need to mitigated by overtaxed districts. There’s a morbid irony, therefore, in new findings suggesting that these kids face the additional danger of poisoning once they walk into school. Nationwide testing in the wake of the Flint crisis has revealed distressing levels of lead contamination in school systems from Los Angeles to Newark. The problem has gone largely undetected for years because the only statute governing lead levels in public water supplies is a grossly inadequate 1991 EPA rule. Countless district facilities around the country are exempted from its language, and their lead-lined pipes and water coolers are spreading pollutants that are known to damage children’s bodily organs and stunt intellectual development. Disadvantaged families need to know that their kids are safe at school, not at risk of sustaining irreversible biological harm.
  • We all know the hallmarks of a typical civics lesson: dust-dry soliloquys about the Virginia Plan versus the New Jersey Plan, yellowed daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln, and melodically flaccid episodes of Schoolhouse Rock. If there were any class period that could
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“The Proper Perspective” is a discussion between Jamie Davies O’Leary, senior Ohio policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Stephen Dyer, education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio. Interested in many of the same data points and research questions, they decided to share some of this exchange more publicly, helping both to illuminate trends in Ohio public education and formulate policy recommendations through their insights. This is the fourth edition of the series. The first can be found here, the second here, the third here.

New Ohio report cards show, to some extent, the effect of parents opting their children out of standardized testing. Jamie and Steve have both been writing about the implications of school and district report cards data and had an exchange about their concerns over testing opt-outs going forward.

Jamie:

I know that you were especially concerned about opt-outs in Northeast Ohio after hearing that Lorain would be hit hard. Indeed, that district was. I was surprised, and glad, that the...

Van Schoales

Education Cities and Great Schools recently released a useful new educational data tool called the Education Equality Index (EEI), which allows users to compare cities and states across the nation that are “closing the achievement gap.” The tool compiles school-level low-income student achievement data (2011–2014), compares it to state average proficiency rates for all students (by test and grade), and adjusts the school’s score based on the population it serves. The EEI then rolls up these school scores into city- and state-wide scores. It quantifies the size of this gap (which, because the data is normalized, can be compared across cities and states with different standardized tests).

Education Cities should be applauded for helping raise the issue around our nation’s huge achievement gap. We need to pay more attention to disparities by race, income, and gender in our schools. We need to apply even more resources to understanding how schools are narrowing these gaps and devote greater attention to those efforts that are actually getting students to achieve at higher levels. EEI also has some great data visualizations from which the National Center on Educational Statistics could take a few tips.

There are, however, a number of significant problems with...

  • Merryl Tisch, who is stepping down as chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents, gave a valedictory interview to the New York Times last week. As head of one of the foremost educational authorities in the state, she will principally be remembered for championing and helping implement the Common Core State Standards and a new teacher evaluation system alongside New York State Education Commissioner John King (confirmed Monday as secretary of education). Her efforts led to some necessary improvements in curriculum and instruction across the state, but they didn’t come without a backlash: Roughly one-fifth of all eligible students were kept out of the new tests by their parents last spring, and unions revolted over the Regents’ recommendation to link teacher evaluations to student scores. Now, with Governor Andrew Cuomo backing slowly away from that notion and an opt-out favorite in line to replace Tisch as chancellor, the movement for high standards looks like it’s undergoing a reset in the Empire State. It’s up to both local leaders and national reformers to make sure that new players don’t change matters for the worse.
  • You may be wondering why, after many months and approximately eight thousand primary
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Ohio’s 2014–15 report cards are now fully available for all schools and districts except dropout prevention and recovery programs (due at the end of March). With ten graded measures and several ungraded components as well, there are dozens of ways to parse the data to learn how well Ohio public schools are performing—and more importantly, how well equipped students are for later life success. (Performance on the report cards is not the same as true college and career readiness; check out our recently released statewide report card analysis, Facing Facts, for more about that.)

Much of Ohio’s high school data is relatively new and merits exploration. High school report cards include traditional graduation rates as well as additional measures intended to gauge students’ college and career readiness. These “Prepared for Success” measures (rolled out in 2013–14) remain ungraded until next year, but they yield valuable information in six categories: 

  • College admission tests (participation rates on ACT/SAT, mean scores, and percentage receiving remediation-free scores),
  • Dual enrollment (specifically, the percentage of students earning at least three dual enrollment credits while in high school),
  • Industry credentials,
  • Honors diplomas awarded,
  • Advanced Placement (participation rates and test results), and
  • International Baccalaureate (participation
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Following hard on the heels of Fordham’s own reportEvaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments, the Center for American Progress looks at the exams offered by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced (SBAC) testing consortia and largely likes what it sees for students with special challenges.

It’s a larger population than many perhaps realize. English language learners (4.4 million) and students with disabilities (6.4 million) constitute more than 20 percent of American school enrollment. “Given these numbers, it is critical that students with disabilities and English language learners have the same opportunities as their peers to demonstrate their knowledge and skills and receive appropriate supports to meet their needs,” the report notes.

Testing “accommodations” have typically meant extra time, questions read out loud or translated into native languages, and so on. While PARCC and SBAC “improve on previous state tests in terms of quality, rigor, and alignment” (Fordham’s report reached the same overarching conclusion) they also represent a significant advance in “universal design”—a principle that considers the user with the greatest physical and cognitive need and makes it a “feature,” not a “fix.” Consider the authors’ example of sidewalk “curb cuts.” Designed to make sidewalks wheelchair accessible, they ended up...

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