Standards, Testing & Accountability

The new education law of the land—the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—has been the talk of the town since President Obama signed it into law in December 2015. Under the new law, testing doesn’t initially seem that different from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) days: ESSA retains the requirement that states administer annual assessments in grades 3–8 and once in high school; requires that test results remain a prominent part of new state accountability plans; and continues to expect states to identify and intervene in struggling schools based upon assessment results. But a closer look reveals that ESSA provides a few key flexibilities to states and districts—and opens the door for some pretty significant choices. Let’s take a look at the biggest choices that Ohio will have to make and the benefits and drawbacks of each option. 

Test design

There are two key decisions for states in terms of test design. The first is related to high school testing. ESSA permits districts to use “a locally selected assessment in lieu of the state-designed academic assessment” as long as it’s a “nationally recognized high school academic assessment.” In other words, Ohio districts could forego a...

You, like me, may find something tiresome about the sudden recrudescence of the Japanese pocket monster after its deserved interval in pixelated purgatory. The arrival of the Pokémon Go app has sent an army of dead-eyed phone worshipers traipsing through Arlington National Cemetery and D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum in search of imaginary cuddle beasts, and it’s hard for us grumps to find an upside. That’s why we should leave it to USA Today’s inimitable gaming correspondent, Greg Toppo, who has gone to bat for the social and educational benefits of the app. In interviews with tech-savvy educators, he detects great admiration for the way it disperses its users into public spaces—churches, parks, museums, and historic buildings—and pushes them to rediscover their communities. A whole array of “augmented reality” games could harness this level of engagement for educational ends, even if their participants just think they’re stalking the elusive Jigglypuff.

Veterans of the reform movement probably don’t need any reminders about the sorry state of K–12 education in Newark. From the thousands of pupils served in abominable schools to decades of state intervention and the squandered $100 million gift from Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg, the city’s troubles...

For three decades, leaders of both major political parties have recognized the urgency of reforming and renewing American K–12 education, and major elements of the reform agenda have generally enjoyed bipartisan support: higher standards, better teachers, results-based accountability, and more choices (particularly via charter schools). That’s why forty-three states—red, blue, and purple—have passed charter laws, and nearly all have higher standards and better assessments than they did a decade ago. From A Nation at Risk (1983) to Charlottesville (1989) to NCLB (2002) to ESSA (2015), elected officials from both sides of the aisle have been able to work together in pursuit of important goals involving the future of the country and its children.

They haven’t always agreed—especially on which levels of government should do what, how many forms of school choice warrant public funding, how best to evaluate teachers, and so on—but I’m not talking about consensus on the details of policy and implementation. I’m referring to mutual acknowledgment of the acute problems of weak achievement, unequal opportunity, too many dropout factories, and too few terrific teachers. Republicans and Democrats have generally agreed that the need for reform is urgent, and their policy outlines have often included many of the...

A new experimental study examines whether interim assessments have an effect on improving outcomes for students at the lower, middle, and higher ends of the achievement distribution, with a particular focus on the lower end.

Specifically, researchers study two reading and math assessment programs in Indiana: mCLASS in grades K–2 (a face-to-face diagnostic for which teachers enter results immediately in a hand-held device) and Acuity, a CTB/McGraw Hill product, in grades 3–8 (which is administered via paper/pencil). K–8 schools that volunteered to take part in the study and met certain criteria (like not having used the two interim assessments before) were randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions in the 2009–10 academic year. Of the 116 schools that met all criteria, seventy were randomly selected to participate, fifty-seven were assigned, and fifty ultimately participated. The outcome measure for grades K–2 was the Terra Nova; for grades 3–8, the Indiana state test (ISTEP+). The analysts conducted various analyses, each of which targeted impact at the lower, middle, and upper tail of the distribution.

In general, the results show that in grades 3–8, lower-achievers seem to benefit more from interim assessments than higher-achieving students. The magnitude of the effects were larger in...

As a chubby girl at Treakle Elementary School (Mom said it was just “baby fat”), one thing I remember having to do was memorize my times tables. My well-meaning Dad and I sat at our kitchen table after dinner as he called out multiplication problems to me at lightning speed: six times six, twelve times eleven, eight times nine, ten times three. On and on it went. When I got one wrong (aargh!), he went back to it again (and again). Unnerving, to be sure, but I felt great pride at (eventually) memorizing the entire lot and I relished the ritual that Dad and I shared as Mom finished the dishes and my near-teen sister chatted forever on the phone.

I’ve since learned that not all teachers, kids, and parents are as smitten with memorizing fundamental math facts. Yes, some are adamant that kids must memorize the basics or they’ll fall ever farther behind. But others are just as convinced that memorization in elementary school damages youngsters academically and emotionally, stunting their genuine understanding of math concepts and leaving them frustrated, stressed, and math-averse.

Part of the rationale for academic standards is to standardize essential elements of...

The purpose of my last post was to suggest that those frustrated with school “accountability” should consider the structural elements that gave rise to our present accountability systems. My argument was that if we want to fundamentally change the way we assess public schools, we may need to change the way we deliver public education.

I tried to make the case that our historical reliance on one school provider per geographic area forced policy makers to create accountability systems that had certain inescapable characteristics (e.g., treating schools as interchangeable, using narrow performance measures). My argument here is that a “diverse provider” environment (where an area has an array of operators running an array of schools) allows for a very different kind of accountability system.

Fortunately, this conversation needn’t be hypothetical; chartering has given us real-world examples of geographies that fit the diverse provider bill. I think this experience offers at least five big lessons about what accountability can look like in this different environment.

First, chartering entered public education after a century of the district system. That meant that wherever charter schools emerged, there was already a district. Accordingly, a charter school has always been an “extra”—a choice-based alternative to existing...

Over the last few months, my work on ESSA implementation and my thinking about new systems of urban schools have come together. I have a new hypothesis. And I think it has some interesting implications.

I now believe that our current understanding of “state accountability systems” is a reflection of a decision made one hundred years ago. When America started systematizing public education at the turn of the twentieth century, we made a very different choice from other Western nations. Instead of embracing a wide variety of nonprofit and government school providers from which families could choose, we determined that each geographic area would have a single government-run operator that would assign kids to schools based on home address.

This post isn’t meant to re-litigate that decision but instead to emphasize its deep influence on how we now think about accountability systems. When these systems were first considered and developed (in the 1990s and early 2000s), the single-provider district-based model was still synonymous in most places with public education. My point is this: Our understanding of an “accountability system” is actually better thought of as an “accountability system for the single-government-provider approach to school delivery.”

I think this is important...

Helping lots more young Americans get “to and through” four-year college degrees is a major goal of public policy and philanthropy. In 2009, President Obama set the target of leading the world in college completion by 2020. The Lumina Foundation aspires to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over seven years and half a billion dollars on strategies aimed at increasing college completion.

All of this has led to energetic initiatives inside and outside government to reform the higher education system and provide additional supports to first-generation students—the so-called “completion agenda.”

That’s all well and good. But as I’ve argued before, even these heroic efforts are unlikely to add up to much until we dramatically boost the number of young Americans who are ready for college in the first place. The best evidence of this proposition comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which set a “college-prepared” level on its twelfth-grade assessments a few years ago (in addition to basic, proficient, and advanced). Chart 1 displays the percentage of twelfth-grade students nationally who have reached NAEP’s “college-prepared” level in reading and...

In Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher SurveyJennifer Bay Williams, Ann Duffett, and David Griffith take a close look at how educators are implementing the Common Core math standards in classrooms across the nation. A nationally representative survey of over one thousand teachers reveals that they are increasingly familiar with the Common Core and believe that it will benefit students. Yet our findings also point to several areas that warrant mid-course corrections if we’re going to fulfill the standards’ more rigorous expectations.

Here are a few key takeaways: 

  1. Teachers like the Common Core but they don’t think all of their students and parents are equally enamored. Most teachers view the standards positively, believing that they will enhance their students’ math skills and prepare them for college and beyond. But they add that students’ and parents’ views are considerably less rosy. Some of their students have “math anxiety,” they say, and 85 percent believe that “reinforcement of math learning at home is declining because parents don’t understand the way that math is being taught.”
     
  2. Teachers know what’s in the Common Core—and they’re teaching it at the appropriate grade level. Though it may seem unsurprising,
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  • Elite public academies like Boston Latin, Stuyvesant High School, and San Francisco’s Lowell High School have long been acclaimed for the top-flight academics they offer to applicants who pass their rigorous entrance exams. Lately, however, they’ve been receiving some unwanted attention: Many now argue that the schools’ admissions practices should be altered to cultivate student populations that more closely reflect the demographics of their host cities. Of course, the issue of race and selective schools isn’t a new one, but it has recently burned so hot that people have begun losing their jobs. PBS’s Newshour, in collaboration with Education Week, has a fine roundup of the debate. One point that’s beyond dispute, however, is that major urban K–8 systems need to do a much better job preparing students of color to enter our best high schools. This objective may call for enhanced gifted-and-talented programming, more funding for magnet schools, and a commitment to a form of academic tracking in the early years. Whatever the ingredients, the aim should be higher-achieving kids.
  • Education Week’s terrific coverage has actually earned double honors this week, as we hasten to recommend that you check out their special package
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