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.

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...

With little fanfare, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) last month released a draft of its new “School Quality Snapshot”—Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s bid to evaluate each of Gotham’s more than 1,800 schools based on “multiple measures.” The DOE’s website invites public comment on the new reports until May 8. Here’s mine:

I confess I wasn’t the biggest fan of the single-letter-grade school report cards of the Bloomberg-Klein era. But as a signaling device to schools and teachers about what mattered to the higher-ups at the DOE’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters, they were clear and unambiguous: Raise test scores, but most importantly raise everyone’s test scores. With 85 percent of a school’s grade based on test scores—and 60 percent of the total based on test score growth—the report cards, for good or for ill, left little room for doubt that  testing was king. Valorizing growth was an earnest attempt to measure schools’ contributions to student learning, not merely demographics or zip code.

Fariña, whose contempt for data I’ve remarked upon previously, values “trust.” You may worry if your child can’t read or do math. So does Chancellor Fariña, sort of. But she deeply cares if “teachers trust the...

The testing “opt-out” movement is testing education reform’s humility.

The number of students not participating in state assessments is large and growing. In one New York district, 70 percent of students opted out; in one New Jersey district, it was 40 percent.

Some reporting makes the case that this phenomenon is part of a larger anti-accountability, anti-Common Core story. Some reformers, it seems to me, believe opting out is the result of ignorance or worse.

Participants are routinely cast as uninformed or irrational. Amanda Ripley implied that opting out of testing is like opting out of vaccines and lice checks. New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch argued, “We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up…we should not refuse to take the test.” A column in the Orlando Sentinel argued we’d “lost our minds” and that the “opt-out movement has officially jumped...

The University of Kentucky may have lost the NCAA tournament, but Kentuckians can still take heart in their K–12 schools’ promising non-athletic gains. According to this new report, the Bluegrass State’s ACT scores have shot up since it began to implement the Common Core in 2011–12.

Using data from the Kentucky Department of Education, the study compared ACT scores for three cohorts of students who entered eighth grade between the 2007–08 and 2009–10 school years. The first group took the ACT—a state requirement for all eleventh graders—in 2010–11, immediately prior to CCSS implementation. They were therefore not formally exposed to instruction under the new standards. Cohorts two and three took the ACT in 2011–11 and 2012–13, after the introduction of CCSS-aligned curricula. They earned composite scores that were 0.18 and 0.25 points higher, respectively, relative to first cohort. The study authors report this gain as roughly equivalent to three months of additional learning.

The report rightly cautions against reading too much into these early findings. The short interval between Common Core implementation and the cohorts’ ACT scores reduces the effect the standards could have on student achievement. The authors also note that it is not clear whether the scoring gains...

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