When students take tests and score at the “basic” level, we tend to assume that—if the test is a good one—this means they’ve attained a relatively low level of skill, short of proficiency and far from mastery of the material.

But two recent studies have used clever methodologies to complicate this picture. They’ve found that, although assessments gauge students’ level of “cognitive skills”—the knowledge of the material and ability to perform academic tasks that assessments are meant to assess—they also capture an important factor that mediates between a student’s skills and the eventual score: effort on the test.

Student effort is not equal in all contexts, meaning it contributes to differences in test scores for different countries (or states, districts, schools, and students). These studies have focused on the consequences of varying effort for making international comparisons, but the implications of their conclusions are wide-ranging, both for testing and for education policy more broadly.

The research

The studies’ methodologies are clever in how they separate the effects of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, like effort and persistence.

In one, researchers at the University of Arkansas used data from the PISA international assessment to estimate the extent to which scores...

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

It’s easy for us armchair-quarterbacks of education to cast stones at teachers and principals who give diplomas to students who didn’t earn them. But a more constructive conversation would start with a mea culpa: We have made a complete hash of the policies governing high schools and what’s expected of young people seeking to graduate from them. Until we fix that, we should expect the cheating and gaming to continue.

Our first mistake was to set sky-high goals around graduation rates, while allowing local officials great discretion in defining what it takes for students to earn a diploma. If this mistake sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same one we made when we set near-universal proficiency in reading and math as a national goal under No Child Left Behind, but let states define “proficiency” as they saw fit.

Both sides of this equation are off. As my colleague Brandon Wright pointed out recently, almost a third of...

Peter Greene

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

The battery of questions in this year’s Wonkathon prompt is a good one, and they are all deserving of consideration. But I think it overlooks a major consideration: Why four years?

The definition of high school graduation that includes the qualifier “within four years” is now rarely even explicitly expressed, and yet it represents a perverse disincentive in the current system.

Consider this story from early in my own career. I met Pat (not the person’s actual name, of course) in Pat’s freshman year. Pat was taking low-level courses to avoid challenges that were well within Pat’s capabilities, but for a variety of reasons, school wasn’t really Pat’s thing. Pat stumbled through freshman year, and then completely bombed sophomore year and had to repeat most of those courses. Pat turned up in my eleventh grade classroom—now taking higher level, college-bound courses. Pat was a new student. “I was a dope,” Pat told me. “I was wasting my...

Solving the “thirty-million-word gap” is not as simple as pouring more language into a child’s ears until she catches up with her peers. New research from a team at MIT points to “conversational turns”—defined as an adult utterance followed by a child utterance, or vice versa, with no more than a five-second pause between the two—as the best predictor of scores on standardized tests of vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning. These findings were independent of parental education levels, socioeconomic status (SES), and the amount of language to which children were exposed in the home. The senior researcher on the team described conversational turns as “almost magical” in their ability to build language competence in children.

The study involved thirty-six children between the ages of four and six and their parents. All were native English speakers, and the children were typically developing, with no history of premature birth, neurological disorders, developmental delay, speech/language therapy, or grade repetition. All participants passed a pre-test hearing screening. The children participated in a functional MRI task (fMRI) that monitored neural activity in Broca’s area, the part of the brain most associated with language production and processing. The task involved passively listening to short,...

Despite most charter schools’ lack of equitable access to state and local education funds, many have reported positive results, particularly in cities. But there’s little research on how effectively charter and traditional public schools (TPS) use their dollars to produce academic gains. So let’s welcome a new report from Corey DeAngelis and his colleagues at the University of Arkansas that examines this issue in eight U.S. cities: Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, New York City, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C.

The analysts compare charter and TPS cost-effectiveness and return on investment (ROI). They calculate the former as the ratio of per-pupil school funding, including both public money and philanthropic donations, to average eighth grade 2015 NAEP math and reading scores. And they compute ROI as the ratio of schools’ overall K–12 education investments to students’ projected lifetime earnings, which they measure using three metrics: each location’s 2016 average statewide earnings, CREDO measurements of learning gains, and the estimated impacts of cognitive ability on lifetime earnings.

De Angelis et al. find that, for every $1,000 in school funding, charter schools produce an average of 4.34 more points on NAEP reading than traditional public schools, and 4.73 more points on...

Elliot Regenstein

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

The challenges of setting high school graduation requirements include several interrelated variables:

  • What threshold of accomplishment do we demand for awarding a high school diploma?
  • What measurement tools do we want to use to determine whether that threshold has been met?
  • Who’s responsible for enforcing that the standards are met, and what are the consequences of failure for that actor?

Improvement in all three areas is necessary if we’re going to properly serve students. So let’s start at the end and work backwards.

To date, states have generally defined graduation requirements in terms of courses that students are required to complete. Under No Child Left Behind, accountability systems generally pushed districts to improve in two areas: graduation rates and standardized test scores. The graduation-rates requirement was to incentivize keeping students in school and on track for college and career. And one purpose of standardized test scores is to act as a check on watering down the requirements, by...

For a quarter-century, the dedicated people who oversee charter schools have been working at solving one of the toughest problems in public life: How can public entities ensure that service providers do their jobs effectively and for a good price, and without micromanaging them into mediocrity?

This is not a problem unique to education. Far from it. Any activity funded with taxpayer dollars faces the same dilemma—from health care, to infrastructure, to garbage collection, and on down the list. Public administration experts like David Osborne urge the government to “steer instead of row” by outsourcing the provision of these services to for-profit or non-profit entities, and holding them accountable for results. That sounds straightforward—until you’re the one charged with actually doing the work.

It’s a blessing, then, that the charter schools movement has the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to plug away at this thorny question. For almost two decades, it has stood up for the autonomy-in-return-for-accountability bargain at the heart of the charter schools promise. And it's walked the talk—both by helping to authorize schools itself, and by examining what this bargain looks like in practice.

As someone who leads an organization that authorizes charter schools, I can...

Peter Cunningham

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

A little over a decade ago, Chicago Public Schools began tracking the number of freshmen failing two or more classes who had a 10 percent absence rate or more than eighteen unexcused absences in a year. Data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research showed that, once students hit this threshold, their likelihood of dropping out skyrocketed.

Today, thanks to this system of tracking freshmen attendance and grades, Chicago’s high school graduation rate is up more than 20 percentage points and is approaching the national average, despite having a student population that is much poorer than the nation as a whole.

The “freshmen on track” metric works because it is based on reliable data points that are unlikely to be corrupted. At a time when people are questioning the validity of high school diplomas, student grades and attendance could provide an answer to the question, “What standards should students meet to graduate from high school?”

Let’s start...

Christopher Yaluma

Adam Tyner and I recently coauthored a report examining gaps in American schools’ gifted programming. The process made me think about the role of democracy in gifted and talented programs and vice versa. As I learned more about the topic, I became increasingly convinced that the current procedures used to identify high achievers were undermining basic democratic values and principles like individuality, equality, and fairness that functional democracies must observe and preserve. Far too many bright students, especially the country’s most disadvantaged, are denied opportunities to be screened for these offerings. In a school system that should—and often purports to—strive to maximize the education of every child, the treatment of these young boys and girls falls well short of that ideal.

In a great book called On Democracy, the late Yale political scientist Robert A. Dahl asks, “Is equality self-evident?” He argues that, for most of us, it is far from self-evident that all men and women are created equal. Dahl makes an important distinction between inequality in ability and inequality in opportunity, the latter being my main concern. Gifted and talented programs affirm inequality in ability yet fail to provide equality in opportunity by restricting efforts to...

Back in October, the Gates Foundation announced a new strategy for their education efforts. Going forward, the organization plans to focus much of its attention—and monetary investment—on networks of schools that will develop locally-driven solutions to improve student achievement. The foundation already issued its first Request for Proposals, along with some guidance based on feedback from various organizations with prior experience improving postsecondary outcomes for students.

Although this grant opportunity is for school networks and not policymakers, there are still plenty of important lessons that lawmakers can learn from the guidance that Gates released to its applicants. And candidates up for election in November should also consider it as they finalize their education platforms.

Here’s a look at three key ideas:

Focus on equity

The Gates Foundation wants applicant responses to “demonstrate a clear commitment to equity.” This is of course important because every single child matters and deserves an excellent education.

For state lawmakers, supporting school choice is a great way to accomplish this. Education is often referred to as the great equalizer, but for millions of children in the United States equal educational opportunities are just a pipe dream. Because of their household incomes and neighborhoods,...