Common Core Watch

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 ...

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserves the many plaudits he received on Friday from President Obama and his friends in the reform community—and even from his sometime-foes in the teachers’ unions. As everyone remarked, he’s a good and decent man, a fighter for disadvantaged kids who’s passionate about his work and loyal to his team. That was certainly my personal experience with him; he was more gracious toward me than I probably deserved, considering the many swipes I’ve taken at his policy decisions over the years.

So please bear with me one more time: Even at this moment of celebration, congratulation, and reflection regarding Arne’s time at the helm, the Obama administration can’t seem to help itself. It almost seems determined to poison the well with Congress and play to the stereotype of a government unwilling to abide by constitutional limits.

I’m referring, of course, to the decision to appoint John King (another smart, committed reformer and all-around great guy) as “acting” education secretary for an entire year rather than putting him through the Senate confirmation process.

It’s certainly true that the confirmation process has slowed to an agonizing pace over the past few decades. And the Bush 43 administration also opted...

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average American lived to be about 50 years old. One hundred years later, nearly three decades have been added to that lifespan, due in no small part to advances in public health: immunization and control of infectious disease, safer and healthier food, motor vehicle safety, fluoridation of drinking water, and recognizing the dangers of tobacco use.

Public health's watershed advances occur in part because public policy and awareness are intertwined with medical practice and research, mutually reinforcing one another. Research teaches us about the ill effects of smoking; doctors discourage their patients from smoking; policymakers raise taxes on cigarettes, pass laws curtailing who can buy and sell them and where people are allowed to light up. Eventually the combined forces become overwhelming. The habit is seen as dangerous, expensive, and socially unacceptable. Fewer Americans purchase cigarettes, and even those who do become reluctant to expose their children to tobacco smoke. Behavior changes. Quality of life improves.

American education has enjoyed no such golden era, largely because education force multipliers too seldom act in concert. Those who work in education research, policy, and practice frequently fail to communicate with one another, and when...