Common Core Watch

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...

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...

Rand Paul, the junior U.S. senator from Kentucky, is one of at least six Republicans hoping to be president. He’s officially up against Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina—and more likely candidates, like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, are waiting in the wings. He’s also the subject of the eighth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling candidates’ stances on education issues.

Paul, who is both a standing U.S. senator and a practicing ophthalmologist, has been around national politics most of his life. His father Ron was an on-again, off-again congressman between 1976 and 2013, ran for president twice, and first held office when Rand was thirteen years old. So although Rand has only been in office for four years, he isn’t exactly a novice—nor is he treated like one. Here are his views on education:

1. Common...

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...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report.

I wanted to hate this book.

I’m a bit of an education technology skeptic, but I come by it honestly. No field overpromises and underdelivers more than education. And nowhere within education is that more true than among education tech’s various cheerleaders. For years, we’ve heard innovators, disruptors, and paradigm shifters natter on about twenty-first-century skills, flipped classrooms, and the “school of one.” Meanwhile, the experience of school for most kids remains the same, with the same mediocre outcomes year after year. Read my lips: No new TED Talks.

So I confess that I opened Greg Toppo’s The Game Believes in You with an arched eyebrow. I’m not ready to abandon my skepticism entirely, but Toppo made a persuasive case that games do many of the things we expect schools and teachers to do—differentiate instruction, gather data, and assess performance—and very, very well.

He started to win me over by not making the standard, clichéd education tech enthusiast’s argument about student engagement and “meeting the children where they are.” I don’t think...

Mike Huckabee announced his candidacy for president yesterday, becoming the eighth hopeful to do so and the third Republican in two days. The Republican primary is now a six-person race, compared to the Democrats’ two. And Huckabee is the subject of the seventh installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling candidates’ stances on today’s biggest education issues.

The forty-fourth governor of Arkansas is very familiar with both politics and presidential campaigns. He started his political career in 1993 as the lieutenant governor of Arkansas. He leveled up to governor in 1996, a gig he held until 2007. Dreaming even bigger, he ran for president in 2008. He considered running in 2012, but ultimately didn’t. And here he is in 2016, back in the mix. His long career has brought many opinions on education, some of which have changed significantly. Here are ten:

1. Common Core (2015): “I also oppose Common Core....We must kill Common Core and restore common...

Education technology in general—and digital games specifically—can be easily dismissed as yet another Next Big Thing that’s doomed to disappoint. If your standard prescription for schools and teaching is high standards, rigorous instruction, and rich curriculum, you might be tempted to roll your eyes at Greg Toppo’s new book on the potential of digital games to change K–12 education, The Game Believes in You. Toppo is no pie-eyed fanboy nattering on about digital natives, paradigm shifts, innovation, and disruption. The national education reporter for USA Today and a former classroom teacher, Toppo makes a compelling case for games as not merely engaging, (the default setting for mere enthusiasts and marketers) but cognitively demanding. A well-designed game is fun, but it’s rigorous fun.

Toppo makes a convincing case that savvy teachers have always used games to involve kids in learning. He’s at his best describing games like DragonBox, a “lovely, mysterious, and a bit off-center” diversion that seems unusually good at getting pre-schoolers—yes, pre-schoolers—to think algebraically. Likewise, what is a multi-level game if not an adaptive assessment that kids want to participate in? But the most compelling argument running through the book is the infinite malleability of well-designed games. If differentiated...

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...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Wanna opt out of tests? Try this instead"

There’s a bracing moment early in the 1991 movie Grand Canyon. A tow truck driver played by Danny Glover miraculously appears to rescue a stranded motorist played by Kevin Kline, who is being terrorized by thugs on a deserted Los Angeles street. Glover’s character appears, calmly hooks up the disabled car to his rig, and appeals to the gun-toting gang leader to let him and Kline go on their way.

“I'm gonna grant you that favor, but tell me this,” the gang leader says after a tense standoff, reminding the tow truck operator that he’s calling the shots. “Are you asking me as a sign of respect? Or are you asking because I've got the gun?”

“You ain't got the gun,” Glover replies, “we ain't having this conversation.”

I think of this scene every time I read a story about the “opt-out movement”—parents and others protesting the distorting effects of standardized testing in schools by refusing to let their children take the tests. Opt-out parents believe they have a gun pointed at testing. They might be right. But the opt-out movement...

A new report by a Harlem-based parent advocacy group calls on New York City charter schools to reduce their long waiting lists by “backfilling,” or admitting new students whenever current ones leave. The report from Democracy Builders estimates that there are 2,500 empty seats in New York City charter schools this year as a result of students leaving and not being replaced the following year.

It’s a deeply divisive issue within the charter sector. When transient students (those most likely to be low-performing) leave charter schools and are not replaced, it potentially makes some charters look good on paper through attrition and simple math: Strugglers leave, high performers stay, and the ratio of proficient students rises, creating an illusion of excellence that is not fully deserved. Charters should not be rewarded, the backfillers argue, merely for culling their rolls of the hardest to teach or taking advantage of natural attrition patterns.

Fair enough, although there’s a distasteful, internecine-warfare quality to all of this: Charters that backfill resent the praise and glory heaped upon those who do not, and seek to cut them down to size. Traditional schools hate...

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