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.

Last week, we cautioned that Ohio’s opt-out bill (HB 420) offers a perverse incentive for districts and schools to game the accountability system. The bill has since been amended, but it is no closer to addressing the larger issues Ohio faces as it determines how best to maintain accountability in response to the opt-out movement. 

Current law dings schools and districts when a student skips the exam by assigning a zero for that student when calculating the school’s overall score (opting out directly impacts two of ten report card measures). The original version of HB 420 removed those penalties entirely. Instead of earning a zero, absent students would simply not count against the school. Realizing the potential unintended consequences under such a scenario, including the possible counseling out of low-achieving students and larger numbers of opt-outs overall, the drafters of the substitute bill incorporated two changes.

First, the amended version requires the Ohio Department of Education to assign two separate Performance Index (PI) grades for schools and districts for the 2014–15 school year—one reflecting the scores of all students required to take exams (including those who opt out) and another excluding students who didn’t participate. Second, in...

Following in the footsteps of a previous study, CAP researchers have examined the effects of a state’s commitment to standards-based reform (as measured by clear standards, tests aligned to those standards, and whether a state sanctions low-performing schools) on low-income students’ test scores (reading and math achievement on the NAEP from 2003 to 2013). The results indicate that jurisdictions ranked highest in commitment to standards-based reform (e.g., Massachusetts, Florida, Tennessee, the District of Columbia) show stronger gains on NAEP scores for their low-income students. The same relationship seems to be present in states ranked lowest in commitment to standards-based reform: low-income students in Iowa, Kansas, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota did worse.

As you can imagine, a lot of caveats go with the measure of commitment to standards-based reform. Checking the box for “implemented high standards” alone is likely to pose more questions than it answers. Beyond that, implementation, teaching, and assessment of standards are all difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. The authors acknowledge that some of their evidence is “anecdotal and impressionistic,” but they are talking about the “commitment to standards” piece. They are four-square behind NAEP scores as a touchstone of academic success or lack...

The eyes of the nation are fixed on a tournament of champions this week. Snacks have been prepared, eager spectators huddle around their screen of preference, and social media is primed to blow up. Veteran commentators have gathered at the scene to observe and pontificate. For the competitors, the event represents the culmination of months of dedicated effort, and sometimes entire careers; everything they’ve worked for, both at the college and professional level, has led up to this moment. The national scrutiny can be as daunting for grizzled journeymen as it is for fresh-faced greenhorns. You know what I’m talking about:

The Fordham Institute’s ESSA Accountability Design Competition.

Okay, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you inhabit the world of education policy, you took notice of Fordham’s January call for accountability system frameworks that would comply with the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act—and take advantage of the new authority the law grants to states. With the federal influence on local classrooms scaled back so suddenly, it will be up to education agencies in Wisconsin and Mississippi and Alaska to adopt their own methods of setting the agenda for schools and rating their performance in adhering to it.

The purpose of...

Last May, Achieve released a report showing that most states have created a false impression of student success in math and reading proficiency. Known as the “honesty gap” (or, as Fordham has long described it, The Proficiency Illusion), the discrepancy between reported and actual proficiency is found when state test results are compared with NAEP results.[1] For example, Achieve’s May report showed that over half of states showed discrepancies of more than thirty percentage points with NAEP’s gold standard. Ohio was one of the worst offenders: Our old state test scores (the OAA and OGTs) differed by thirty percentage points or more in each of NAEP’s main test subjects, with a whopping forty-nine-point difference in fourth-grade reading.

Less than one year later, new state test scores and biennial NAEP results have created an opportunity to revisit the honesty gap. In its latest report, Achieve finds that the gap has significantly narrowed in nearly half of states. Ohio is one of twenty-six states that has earned the commendation “Significantly Improved” for closing the honesty gap in either fourth-grade reading or eighth-grade math by at least ten percentage points since 2013....

On Tuesday afternoon, we at the Fordham Institute will host a competition to present compelling designs for state accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act. (Event details here.) The process has already achieved its objective, with more than two dozen teams submitting proposals that are chock-full of suggestions for states and commonsense recommendations for the U.S. Department of Education. They came from all quarters, including academics (such as Ron FergusonMorgan Polikoff, and Sherman Dorn); educators (including the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows); policy wonks from D.C. think tanks (including the Center for American ProgressAmerican Enterprise Institute, and Bellwether Education Partners); and even a group of Kentucky high school students. Selecting just ten to spotlight in Tuesday’s live event was incredibly difficult.

I’ve pulled out some of the best nuggets from across the twenty-six submissions.

Indicators of Academic Achievement

ESSA requires state accountability systems to include an indicator of academic achievement “as measured by proficiency on the annual assessments.” 

Yet not a single one of our proposals suggests using simple proficiency rates as an indicator here. That’s because everyone is aware of NCLB’s unintended consequence: encouraging schools to pay attention only to the “bubble kids” whose performance is close to the...

Michael S. Matthews, Ph.D.

The differential representation of some student populations in advanced academic programming has long been recognized as a glaring weakness of gifted education practice. Numerous authors have called for or investigated alternative means through which culturally and linguistically diverse students might demonstrate their academic potential and hence be included, as even a cursory search through articles in Gifted Child Quarterly and other academic journals in the field will confirm. But despite scholarly attention, the problem persists. What can we do about it? It is clear that there is no magic bullet—simply using different tests is not the answer. While high test scores are a very effective indicator of giftedness in the domain being tested, the lack of high scores is NOT reliable as an indicator of the absence of gifted abilities.

Many schools could help their gifted program enrollment to become more representative of the overall school population through one simple step: implementing systematic screening of all students. Often this can be accomplished at relatively low cost using scores from existing measures. If all students are tested regularly as part of other school initiatives, the missing step may be simply to find the time and delegate the authority to make someone...

Ohio lawmakers recently proposed a bill (HB 420) that would remove students who opt out of standardized tests from the calculation of certain school and district accountability measures. Representative Kristina Roegner (R-Hudson), who introduced the bill, declared that “if [a student is] not going to take the test, in no way should the school be penalized for it.” Students who fail to take state exams (for any reason, not just opting out) count against two of ten school report card measures, the performance index score, and the K–3 literacy measure. Non-participating students receive zeroes, which pulls down the overall score on those components.

On first reading, Roegner’s sentiments seem obvious: Why should schools be held responsible for students who decline even to sit for the exams? Is it the job of schools to convince students (or their parents, the more likely objectors) to show up on exam day? While compulsory schooling laws do require students to attend school, there is nothing especially enforceable about exam day in particular. Ohio does not prohibit opting out. Nor does it explicitly allow it, as some states do (e.g., Pennsylvania allows a religious objection to testing; Utah and...

My wife and I both spend time working with our kids on their homework. We have also made a family tradition of “Saturday School,” a routine that my wife and I instituted a couple of years ago because our kids’ school was using a pre-Common Core math curriculum that wasn’t keeping pace with the standards. It has become a weekly exercise for the whole family’s brain. On my personal blog, I’ve shared some of the math problems that I’d written for Saturday School so that other parents could use the problems at home if they wished.

On busy nights, most parents (including me) are hard-pressed to find time to help with daily homework. That’s why my first piece of advice for parents is that they help strengthen their children’s work ethic and accountability by ensuring that homework is completed. My kids have their own dedicated space at home for schoolwork. When they get home from school, the next day’s homework has to be complete and correct before there is any screen time or other activities.

Parents can also help at home with skill building and fluency practice—things like memorizing basic math facts. When it comes to skills, practice is essential....

The expansion of the Advanced Placement program, on its face, is one of the great feel-good stories of education in my lifetime. Instead of being relegated to a boutique résumé item on the college applications of America’s most fortunate high schoolers, AP has broadened access to its more rigorous curriculum to kids across the country. Demanding coursework prepares students better for the higher expectations of post-secondary education, and successful completion of exams can often be counted for precious college credit. So, high-fives all around, right?

Maybe not. After all, if we’re moving so quickly to fit new students into AP classes, can we be sure that the experience is still as enriching as it was when the program was more narrowly focused on elite pupils? Is the content being diluted? On the flip side, critics point to huge gaps in participation among different ethnic groups. With disproportionate numbers of white and Asian students taking and passing exams, has the march toward equity made any real progress?

Those are the questions this AEI report, which focuses on the national spread of AP participation between 1990 and 2013, seeks to answer. It begins with an enlightening look into just...

Officials at the Department of Education have requested public comments by January 21 about areas in the new Every Student Succeeds Act where regulation might be “helpful or necessary.” My recommendation to the feds: Tread very lightly.

That’s not an ideological plea (though I am ideologically disposed to a limited federal role). It’s because there’s no one best system for school accountability, and there never will be. Uncle Sam has to be damn sure not to smother good ideas that the states might develop, now or in the future.

That’s not to say that anything goes. ESSA established “guardrails,” in D.C. parlance, to ensure that states don’t eviscerate results-based accountability. They cannot decide to judge schools by nothing but student engagement, or teacher happiness, or the number of hugs a kid receives each day.

But Congress did give the green light to the states to come up with new approaches to rating school quality. It’s critical that John King and his colleagues don’t put on the red light before the process even begins.

Let me offer a few examples of novel approaches that deserve to be permissible, and even embraced, under the law—but that the micromanagers at...