Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Yesterday, National Review Online posted an article entitled, “The Eleven Dumbest Common Core Problems.” This is the latest in a series of posts making their way around the internet aimed at demonstrating how the Common Core ELA and math standards are “forcing” low-quality, fuzzy math and politically charged English passages on our nation’s elementary students. But that’s like saying wet roads caused it to rain—it’s got the causation all mixed up.

The posts and the pictures of awful curriculum have parents, teachers, and community members rightly concerned. We should be teaching important content, free of political biases and agendas, and we should be teaching that content in the most effective and efficient way possible.

But we can blame the Common Core only if we have some evidence that pro-environmentalist reading passages—or otherwise low-quality elementary reading and math materials—are a new phenomenon. Or that they account for a significantly higher proportion of texts read than before CCSS. Or if opponents can demonstrate a clear link between the poor curriculum and the demands of the standards.

Thus far, very little (if any) such evidence has been presented, so it isn’t clear why the CCSS—or any standards that don’t explicitly demand fuzzy math or environmentalist literature—are to blame. Is choice to blame for charlatan school leaders? Because there is financial mismanagement of some charter schools, should we eliminate privately managed public schools? Hardly. But that is the same line of argument being advanced by opponents of the Common Core,...

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Fordham goes mad for March Madness

Mike and Brickman consider whether “college for all” is the right goal, whether a competitive assessment marketplace will be good for Common Core implementation in the long run, and whether Wyoming is better off without the Next Generation Science Standards. Amber drops a line about online learning.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Relative Benefits of Live versus Online Delivery: Evidence from Virtual Algebra I in North Carolina," by Jennifer Heissel, Working Paper, Association for Education Finance and Policy. (Please email us for the link: ptatz@edexcellence.net.)

It’s an article of faith in the school-reform community that we should be striving to prepare all students for success in college—if not a four-year degree, then some other recognized and reputable post-secondary credential. The rationale is clear and generally compelling; as a recent Pew study reiterated, people who graduate from college earn significantly more than those who do not. Other research indicates that low-income students in particular benefit from college completion, becoming nearly three times more likely to make it into the middle class than their peers who earn some (or no) college credits. And it’s not just about money: College graduates are also healthier, more involved in their communities, and happier in their jobs.

Thus, in the reformers’ bible, the greatest sin is to look a student in the eye and say, “Kid, I’m sorry, but you’re just not college material.”

But what if such a cautionary sermon is exactly what some teenagers need? What if encouraging students to take a shot at the college track—despite very long odds of crossing its finish line—does them more harm than good? What if our own hyper-credentialed life experiences and ideologies are blinding us to alternative pathways to the middle class—including some that might be a lot more viable for a great many young people? What if we should be following the lead of countries like Germany and Singapore, where “tracking” isn’t a dirty word but a common-sense way to prepare teenagers...

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Fordham goes mad for March Madness

Mike and Brickman consider whether “college for all” is the right goal, whether a competitive assessment marketplace will be good for Common Core implementation in the long run, and whether Wyoming is better off without the Next Generation Science Standards. Amber drops a line about online learning.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Relative Benefits of Live versus Online Delivery: Evidence from Virtual Algebra I in North Carolina," by Jennifer Heissel, Working Paper, Association for Education Finance and Policy. (Please email us for the link: ptatz@edexcellence.net.)

As followers of the Common Core debate know all too well, when it comes to the veracity of publishers’ claims of “Common Core alignment,” the most we supporters have been able to offer in the way of advice is: “buyer beware.” You need only know that publishers slapped “Common Core Aligned!” stickers on previously published materials—almost before the standards themselves were finalized and definitely before any serious curriculum reviewing and rewriting could have been done—to realize that teachers were going to be faced with the unenviable task of wading through a morass of materials of varying degrees of quality and alignment in their attempt to find quality, well-aligned materials for their classrooms.

Because there is no agency tasked with trademark enforcement, any company can say its books and resources are Common Core aligned. And publishers seem determined to take advantage of this Wild West environment. Against this backdrop, someone needs to step in as sheriff—a role state departments of education are well suited to fill.

On March 5, the Louisiana Department of Education did just that with their release of a suite of tools aimed at supporting teachers as they align curriculum and instruction to the Common Core. Among those tools is a series of rubrics that leaders and teachers can use to evaluate ELA and math curricula, and tiered ratings of a number of the most popular and widely used CCSS-aligned English and math curricula.

While there are a number of other “alignment” tools teachers can...

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For many years, Indiana has been a leader in providing rigorous, content-rich K–12 expectations. But lately, the state seems to be taking worrying and entirely unnecessary steps backward. First, under pressure from Common Core opponents, the Board of Education released updated ELA and math standards that are widely considered a step down from both the CCSS and the Indiana standards they replaced.

And now, the state has adopted history standards that are a far cry from the clear, content-rich U.S. history expectations that earned the Hoosier state a top-tier score in Fordham’s most recent analysis of state U.S. history standards (which I coauthored). While these two standards revisions were not purposefully linked, they demonstrate a worrying pattern: a move away of the kind of specific content standards that earned Indiana a reputation for having standards among the best in the nation.

Last fall, Andrea Neal, a middle-school history teacher and a member of Indiana’s Board of Education, contacted me with concerns about the new drafts then emerging from the state’s Department of Education. Given my role in the 2011 review, she asked the head of the DoE to seek my input. But, she tells me, she was informed the department “would not welcome” such a review. The Education Roundtable, an appointed body that advises the Board of Education on standards, also rejected her suggestion. This month, with the revisions complete and a vote approaching, Neal commissioned my review on her own.

My analysis, unfortunately, fully confirmed...

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Student Achievement Partners

The Fordham Institute’s new report Common Core in the Districts paints a vivid picture of four different school districts’ efforts to implement the Common Core State Standards. Each district follows a comprehensive strategy, developed in relation to its own particular portfolio of resources and constraints, and each district has had its own particular successes and failures—but all four share a passionate dedication to the goal. The authors of Common Core in the Districts draw upon these districts’ experiences to make valuable recommendations for educators across the country who are also trying to implement the standards.

The four districts studied intensively by Fordham’s researchers—Kenton County School District in Kentucky; Metropolitan Nashville Public School District in Tennessee; Elementary School District 54 in Schaumberg, Illinois; and Washoe County School District in Nevada—are not alone. At Student Achievement Partners, we have been inspired by our work with educators at the district level.

For example, educators we’ve worked with in Reading, Pennsylvania, discovered that newly purchased reading anthologies didn’t lead students back to the text to search for evidence, nor were the classroom activities sufficiently challenging. The district, however, had recently lost 10 percent of its Title I funds and could little afford new teaching guides at a cost of $400 per classroom. Professional-development director Sue Vaites recounted how the district turned this challenge into an opportunity. Seeing little possibility of new funding, and refusing to use subpar materials, the district and its teachers took charge of creating their own resources. Like educators...

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In Ohio’s education circles, much attention of late has been focused on the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee, A-to-F school grades, and Ohio’s New Learning Standards (which include the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts). Ohio’s upcoming shift from the Ohio Achievement Assessments (grades 3–8) and Ohio Graduation Test (grade 10) to what’s being referred to as Ohio’s Next Generation of Assessments has, for the most part, flown under the radar.

Ohio’s new state assessments will likely be used for the 2014–15 school year and were developed in order to align with the learning standards adopted by the State Board of Education in 2010. The assessments will be in math, English language arts, science, and social studies (new for Ohio) and will be administered online—although a paper-and-pencil version will be available the first year. In the primary grades (K–8), students will be tested in math and English language arts in grades 3–8 (as they are now), in science in grades 5 and 8 (as they are now), and in social studies in grades 4 and 6. As for high school, the state will administer end-of-course exams in physical science; biology; Algebras I and II and geometry (or integrated Mathematics 1, 2, and 3); English language arts 1, 2, and 3; American history; and American government.

The Ohio Department of Education will develop the science and social-studies tests, and the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is slated to create the...

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Everyone knows that the Common Core State Standards initiative has turned into a political football. But a more apt analogy might be baseball—spring training, to be exact. That’s because, for all the colorful commentary, the Common Core is still in the very earliest phases of implementation. It isn’t yet time to pay much attention to the score; instead, we ought to work out the kinks and improve the fundamentals.

And to be sure, tons of progress is needed before states, districts, and schools are ready for game day. That’s the upshot of Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers, a new in-depth study from our think tank. Along with analysts at the group Education First, we examined initial implementation efforts in four districts that are ahead of the curve: Kenton County (KY), Metro Nashville (TN), Illinois’s School District 54 (Schaumburg and vicinity), and Washoe County (Reno, NV).

Here are three major challenges they are facing and what they are doing to overcome them:

1. In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving to devise their own—with mixed success.

Curriculum publishers were suspiciously quick to proclaim that what they are selling is aligned with the Common Core, and districts are rightly wary of such claims. It takes time to develop and vet high-quality textbook series and other curriculum. All four districts expressed caution about spending limited dollars on materials that were not truly aligned to the Common Core and are delaying at least...

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Bill Porter

Yesterday, Kathleen discussed the relationship between standards and choice, ultimately arguing that these two movements ought to operate as complements, rather than antagonists.

Many critics on the Right reject the intrusion of standards-based reforms from the very basic tenets of economic theory.  A truly free-market approach, they argue, would obviate the need for standards because competition and universal choice would identify excellent and poor schools (and educators) more efficiently and effectively than centrally imposed standards ever could.

This position resonates with free-market purists and conservative education reformers alike (and as an unabashed free marketeer, to me as well). Yet, fidelity to economic principles without a realistic discussion of the world within which they operate is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, even the most ardent Chicago economists would agree—whether regarding education policy, drinking water, or anything in between—that the ideal free market with no distortions is both unattainable and undesirable.  We could reduce rent-seeking behavior and deadweight losses across almost every industry by eliminating things like the FDA, federal antitrust laws, statewide insurance commissions—even state speed limits or (gasp) lawyers.   Eliminating clinical trials would allow large pharmaceutical drug companies to move innovative new compounds quickly to market with minimal cost, and the resulting successes (cured cancer patients) and failures (horrific side effects for the patients who managed to survive substandard drugs) would almost assuredly be closer to the true definition of “efficient” than our current processes.

Similarly, the Constitution secures to inventors exclusive rights to their inventions,...

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