Common Core Watch

Editor's note: This post is the second entry of a three-part series on Race to the Top's legacy and the federal role in education. You can read the first entry here and the final entry here.

The super-talented Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff to Secretary Duncan, has convinced me in two recent articles that Race to the Top (RTTT) was a skillfully administered program. Weiss and her colleagues cannily handled public transparency, technical assistance to applicants, and intra-department coordination. They deserve credit for the how of RTTT.

But the articles don’t directly address whether the federal government should’ve undertaken RTTT. Obviously, the administration would say yes. But why? The articles imply an answer, one consistent with progressive ideology and the administration’s approach to health care, environmental regulation, and much more: Expert central administrators can and should solve complex social problems, and the federal government is the logical perch from which to do so.

In Education NextWeiss is transparent about the federal government’s ambitions. “Race to the Top aimed to drive systems-level change,” she acknowledges. The administration wanted “comprehensive and coherent” state agendas aligned with the administration’s preferences on standards, tests, teacher evaluations, and more. RTTT didn’t aspire to influence “discrete silos”; it wanted...

Last week, in the wake of President Obama’s pledge to reduce the amount of time students spend taking tests, my colleagues Robert Pondiscio and Michael Petrilli weighed in with dueling stances on the current state of testing and accountability in America’s schools. Both made valid points, but neither got it exactly right, so let me add a few points to the conversation.

Like Robert, I don’t see how we can improve our schools if we don’t know how they’re doing, which means we need the data we get from standardized tests. But I also believe that—because we’re obligated to intervene when kids aren’t getting the education they deserve—some tests must inevitably be “high-stakes.” The only real alternative to this is an unregulated market, which experience suggests is a bad idea.

Must this logic condemn our children to eternal test-preparation purgatory? I hope not, but I confess to some degree of doubt. The challenge is creating an accountability system that doesn't inadvertently encourage gaming or bad teaching. Yet some recent policy shifts seem to have moved us further away from that kind of system.

As Mike noted, the problem of over-testing has been exacerbated in recent years by the...

Some months ago, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute announced that we were beginning an ambitious review of several next-generation assessments, which were designed to align to the Common Core and were also purported to more accurately measure students’ college and career readiness. We devised the study to answer the following questions:

  1. Do the assessments place strong emphasis on the most important content of college and career readiness standards for the pertinent grade level, including the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? Do they require all students to demonstrate the higher-order thinking skills reflected in those standards? (Content and Depth)
  2. Are they accessible to all students, including students with disabilities and English language learners? (Accessibility)
  3. What are the overall strengths and weaknesses of each assessment relative to the criteria used to evaluate them?

Over the summer, we assembled a panel of reviewers to analyze operational test items of four assessments: the Partnership for the Assessment...

A new study by the NAEP Validity Studies Panel analyzes the alignment of the assessment’s 2015 Math Items (the actual test questions) for grades four and eight to the math Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

To do so, the panel enlisted as reviewers eighteen mathematicians, teachers, math educators, and supervisors who have familiarity with Common Core. This group classified all 150 items in the 2015 NAEP math pool for each grade as either matching a CCSS standard or not.

The reviewers determined that the Common Core and NAEP were reasonably aligned at both grade levels— not surprising, since CCSS writers had the NAEP frameworks at their disposal. Further, NAEP is by design broader than the CCSS and is supposed to maintain a degree of independence relative to the “current fashions in instruction and curriculum.”

Panelists found that 79 percent of NAEP items were matched to the content that appears in the CCSS at or below grade 4. The overall alignment of NAEP to CCSS standards at or below grade eight is even closer, 87 percent.

There is, however, variation in matches across content areas. In fourth grade, the least aligned content area was data analysis, statistics,...

Unfortunately, the rumors, predictions, and surmises were correct: Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are mostly down or flat. The worst news came in eighth-grade math, where twenty-two states saw declines. One of the only bright spots is fourth-grade reading, where ten states (as well as Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland) posted gains.

Why this happened will be combed over and argued. So far, it feels like anyone’s guess (more on that below). But there’s no denying that it’s bad news. It had come to seem like NAEP scores would always go up, at least over the long term, just like it had come to seem like murder rates would always go down. Now the real world has intervened to remind us that social progress is not inevitable. Let’s not sugarcoat it: This is deeply disheartening for our country, our K–12 system, and especially our kids.

As our friends in the research community like to remind us, it’s impossible to draw causal connections from changes in NAEP data; doing so is “misNAEPery.” Yet we can’t help but search for explanations. And we can certainly float hypotheses about the trends—educated guesses that can then be tested using...

The next batch of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is due on October 28. Pundits of all persuasions are gearing up to jump on the news and promote their spin. But that’s for amateurs, I say. Why wait for regular old mis-NAEP-ery when you can practice pre-NAEP-ery?

Rumors abound that the news is going to be bad, with scores down nationally and in a bunch of states. That will be used as fodder to attack Common Core, teacher evaluations, charter schools, or whatever else you happen not to like that’s prominent in today’s education policy conversation.

But let me suggest that journalists and editorialists consider the most likely explanation: It’s the economy, stupid. While those of us in education reform are working hard to make sure that demography does not equal destiny, we must also acknowledge the strong link between students’ socioeconomic status and their academic achievement (a link that some amazing schools are weakening).

In fact, the last time we saw national declines in NAEP scores was in the aftermath of the 1990 recession. That was particularly the case for reading. It makes sense—when families are hurting financially, it’s harder for students to...

A reader recently posed this question:

The Atlantic just published an article about the mistake American educators make by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?

This article is from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links one cultural input with one achievement output and assumes both a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted elsewhere, the same outcome would result there as well. This is the third or fourth such article that I have read about Finland in the Atlantic, and the tone of the pieces has been pretty consistent—they’re feel-good fantasies to help us ward off the blues as the days grow shorter and the verdant earth seems to die yet again. It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake our society.

The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way.

America, unlike Finland, is not a relatively simple society, small in population and low in diversity. Of...

Matt Barnum

In a series of blog posts (IIIIIIIV), Jay Greene argues against the “high-regulation approach” to school choice. I’m going to focus on the final two posts, in which Greene argues that student achievement tests are poor proxies for school quality and that they’re not correlated with other measures of quality.

I think Greene is right to a large extent. But he undersells the value of tests.

It’s pretty clear that the ability of a school or teacher to increase students’ standardized test scores is associated with long-run outcomes. Let’s dig in to some evidence:

  • The well-known Chetty study used a rigorous quasi-experiment to show that teachers with high value-added scores (which are based on standardized tests) produced higher income, greater college attendance, and lower teen pregnancy among students. (In the comments of his post, Greene acknowledges this study but describes the effects as small. I disagree, considering we are describing the effects of a single teacher at a single grade level.)
  • A different Chetty study reports that “students who were randomly assigned to higher-quality classrooms in grades K–3—as measured by classmates' end-of-class test scores—have higher earnings, college attendance rates, and other outcomes.”
  • Hanushek finds that international academic achievement
  • ...

Writing in his always-entertaining blog a few weeks ago, Whitney Tilson gave a nice nod to Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed addressing the sorry state of American teacher preparation. Amid effusive praise of the piece, Whitney writes, “I think morphemes and phonemes matter too but maybe not as much as Willingham does.”  
 
This gently stated but dismissive view of the importance of reading instruction troubles me because I think it captures a viewpoint widely shared by many education reformers.
 
I don’t think it’s because there are many education reformers who reject the science here (unlike many in teacher preparation). Researchers long ago identified the reading methods that would reduce the current deplorable rate of reading failure from 30 percent to somewhere well south of 10 percent, if only schools would take that step. Teacher preparation programs that fail to impress upon elementary teacher candidates the integral connection between spoken sounds and written words are essentially committing malpractice.
  
Instead, I think the issue for some education reformers is that other reforms seem much more important. I can’t figure out why there are still perfectly reasonable, rational people who aren’t willing to embrace the 2 + 2...

“The problem in American education is not dumb teachers. The problem is dumb teacher training,” University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham recently wrote in the New York Times. Indeed, if there’s any part of the education pipeline that’s ripe for retooling, it’s the way we prepare teachers. Complaints are legion, long-standing, and not unique to policy wonks. Teachers themselves routinely bemoan how poorly prepared their training left them for the realities of classroom life. Fewer than half of new teachers described their training as “very good” in a 2012 survey by the American Federation of Teachers, while one in three new teachers reported feeling unprepared on his first day.

Thus, it can only be viewed as a great good thing that two dozen deans of education schools have come together under the banner of “Deans for Impact” and committed themselves to a common set of principles, including data-driven improvement, common outcome measures, empirical validation of teacher preparation methods, and accountability for student learning. They’re also persuading other teacher preparation programs to do the same.

At a Tuesday event at the National Press Club, the group unveiled a ...

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