Standards-Based Reforms

Nationally and in Ohio, we press for the full suite of standards-based reforms across the academic curriculum and throughout the K–12 system, including (but not limited to) careful implementation of the Common Core standards (CCSS) for English language arts (ELA) and mathematics as well as rigorous, aligned state assessments and forceful accountability mechanisms at every level.

My U.S. News column this week asks if EngageNY might be the first “breakout hit” of the Common Core era. 

A lot of us who support Common Core based our enthusiasm on the assumption the standards would create a robust nationwide market for innovative new materials—especially in English language arts (ELA), where Common Core explicitly states that the standards “must be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

So far it hasn’t happened, but that could be changing.  Last week, Fordham gave a very positive review to the EngageNY K–12 English language arts curriculum, developed by the Empire State for voluntary use in its schools and districts with Race to the Top money. But what’s even more noteworthy is that more than half of the twenty million downloads of curriculum modules, units, and lesson plans have come from outside New York. 

Data from Fordham’s report goes a long way toward explaining the demand for EngageNY’s materials:

“Five years into Common Core implementation, 90 percent of school districts report that they are still struggling to find the materials they need to meet the new standards. On the one hand, this is not entirely surprising. Curriculum has long been the...

The National Center for Education Statistics released the fourth study in a series designed to evaluate high school students’ transition to postsecondary education. The primary focus of the report is a nationally representative sample of roughly fifteen thousand students whom researchers surveyed three times: in 2002, when the students were high school sophomores; in 2006, two years after graduation; and again in 2012, eight years after graduation. Researchers also obtained high school transcripts and, if applicable, at least one postsecondary transcript for every member of the cohort, and disaggregated the data by a variety of factors, including demographics, parent education level, and the number of remedial undergraduate courses taken.

The most compelling findings reconfirmed the stark but all-too-familiar achievement gap. If a student was white or Asian, grew up in a two-parent home, had educated parents, or belonged to one of the top three socioeconomic quartiles, that student was more likely than their less advantaged peers to enroll in a postsecondary program of some kind, more likely to earn better grades, less likely to require remedial classes, more likely to graduate, and more likely to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree instead of an associate’s degree...

Achieve has spent a decade relentlessly tracking and reporting on states’ progress in adopting “college- and career-ready” (CCR) policies and practices across multiple fronts. Sometimes we’ve found their reports too rosy, or at least too credulous, with a tendency to credit state assertions that they’re doing something rather than looking under the surface to see whether it’s really happening.

This year’s report is more solid, more fact-based—and more worrying. Consider, for example, its list of fourteen states that “still do not have any form of statewide graduation requirements that require or even suggest (as states with opt-in CCR courses of study do) that students take particular courses (or the content) so that they can graduate college and career ready.”

Pretty grim, no, this deep into the era of standards-based reform and mindful of our multi-year fixation on everybody emerging from the K–12 system ready for something respectable after high school?

Also worrying: Only thirteen states even collect district-level course requirements for high school graduation, and just three make public “the number of credits by subject area by district” required for graduation.

And this: “35 states use end-of-course exams [for some high-school subjects] to help ensure rigor and consistency statewide. However,...

Amid way too much talk about testing and the Common Core, not enough attention is being paid to what parents will actually learn about their children’s achievement when results are finally released from the recent round of state assessments (most of which assert that they’re “aligned” with the Common Core).

Ever since states adopted more rigorous standards—and the two assessment consortia began to develop next-generation tests that will faithfully gauge pupil performance in relation to those standards—there’s been vast anxiety about the bad news that’s apt to emerge. How will people react when informed that their kids aren’t doing nearly as well academically as the previous standards-and-testing regime had led them to believe? Will more parents “opt out” of testing? Will the political backlash cause more states to repudiate the Common Core, change tests yet again, or lower the “cut scores”?

We know the Common Core standards are more challenging than what preceded them in most places. That was the point. We know that the new assessments—at least those custom-built by PARCC and Smarter Balanced—are supposed to probe deeper and expect more. We understand that this reboot of America’s academic expectations is indeed like moving the goal posts. There’s ample...

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we’ve understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. They describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools. Which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum, assessment, and accountability. It’s far better to have a desirable destination than an unworthy one—better to aspire to reach the mountains than the recycling plant—but standards alone won’t get you there.

Plenty of educators understand this, but they often lack access to suitable vehicles by which to make the journey. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited implementation challenge for states, districts, and schools. It’s also why “access to high-quality, standards-aligned curricular resources” comes up in nearly every discussion of the implementation challenges that teachers, schools, and districts face as they ramp up to meet the content and rigor demands of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

This near-universal need for properly aligned curricula and curricular materials is also why so many publishers rushed to slap shiny “CCSS-aligned!” stickers on their products, regardless of how much those products changed...

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we have understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. Standards describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools, which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum decisions, assessments, and accountability. Educators intuitively understand this, but not all policy makers and pundits appear to. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited challenge for states, districts, and schools implementing the Common Core.

Yet five years into that implementation, teachers still report scrambling to find high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials. Despite publishers’ claims, there is a dearth of programs that are truly aligned to the demands of the Common Core for content and rigor. Fixing America’s curriculum problem is no small challenge.

In Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum, Fordham analyzes New York State’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, built from scratch and made available online for all to use for free. How solid is this product? Is it well aligned to the Common Core? Is it teachable?

Here’s what we...

Editor's note: This post has been updated to include the entirety of "Knowledge is literacy."

In his best-selling book In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria worried that in the era of technology and globalization, "an open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere." Defenders like Zakaria have argued that a liberal education is still the best preparation for a broad and unpredictable range of careers.

I agree, but I'd like to propose that we start by restoring the liberal arts tradition to where it can really do the most good: elementary school. A K–5 version of a liberal arts education would go a long way toward solving one of the most stubborn problems we face in American education: How to raise kids who love to read and are pretty good at it.

To be educated in the liberal arts is to have a broad grasp of literature, art, music, history, and the sciences. That's also a fair description of what it takes to be a good reader. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, has driven this point home with exceptional clarity in his outstanding new book Raising...

In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published what was probably the most influential study in our eighteen-year history: The Proficiency Illusion. Using data from state tests and NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress, our partners at NWEA estimated the “proficiency cut scores” of most of the states in the country. We expected to find a race to the bottom during the No Child Left Behind era; instead we found a walk to the middle. Importantly, though, we also demonstrated the vast discrepancies from state to state—and within states, from subject to subject and even grade to grade—when it came to what counted as “proficient.”  Checker and I wrote in the foreword:

What does it mean for standards-based reform in general and NCLB in particular? It means big trouble—and those who care about strengthening U.S. K–12 education should be furious. There’s all this testing—too much, surely—yet the testing enterprise is unbelievably slipshod. It’s not just that results vary, but that they vary almost randomly, erratically, from place to place and grade to grade and year to year in ways that have little or nothing to do with true differences in pupil achievement. America...

Are states dutifully reporting the fraction of students who are on track for college or career? According to a new report from Achieve, a nonprofit organization that assists states in education reform efforts, the answer is no—and Ohio has been one of the worst offenders.

The report documents the discrepancies between proficiency rates on state tests versus the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). Achieve’s analysis finds that most states “continue to mislead the public on whether students are proficient” by reporting proficiency rates on state assessments that are significantly higher than those on NAEP. This is a serious problem since NAEP—commonly referred to as the Nation’s Report Card—has long been considered the gold standard of measuring student achievement and, more recently, college preparedness. As Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Chester Finn explained a few weeks ago, there’s now good evidence that NAEP’s proficiency level in reading is particularly predictive of whether students are ready to succeed in college without taking remedial courses.

Ohio’s longstanding definition of proficiency, on the other hand, is predictive of nothing, as far as we can tell. It certainly doesn’t indicate that a student is on track for college. But that’s surely what parents...

With the end of the school year fast approaching and the annual testing window closing, we can make some preliminary judgments about what's signal and what's noise in the debate over parents opting their children out of state assessments. There have been missteps and lessons for those on both sides of the issue. Four have struck me hard.

1) Respect parental choice. Education reformers who support testing may not agree with parents' decision to opt out. But it's senseless to argue that parents know best when it comes to choosing their child's school, yet are ill-informed when it comes to opting out. Parental choice is like free speech; the test of your belief is whether you still support it when you dislike how it's used. My fellow U.S. News contributor Rick Hess writes that education reformers have dismissed test refusers as "conspiracy theorists and malcontents." That overstates things, but no matter. Those of us who value testing need to do a better job of explaining to unhappy parents what's in it for them. But we also must respect parental prerogative, whether or not we like where it leads.

2) Don't follow the money. Parents have every...

Pages